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Critic's Notebook

Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, 48, wins the Pritzker Prize

When Alejandro Aravena began studying architecture at Santiago's prestigious Catholic University in the 1980s, the strongman Augusto Pinochet was still clinging to power.

“It was the last period of Pinochet’s dictatorship,” Aravena said. “Information was controlled. Not that many things made their way to Chile.”

Combined with the geography that has always kept Chile physically isolated, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, that political climate was enough to make Aravena and his classmates feel as though the rest of the architecture world was a million miles away.

Three decades later, the 48-year-old Aravena finds himself at the very center of the profession. On Wednesday he was named winner of this year's Pritzker Prize, the top honor in architecture.

Aravena has built an international reputation largely on the basis of a practice that combines strong, photogenic and increasingly stripped-down form-making with a dedication to humanitarian work. In addition to his own office, Alejandro Aravena Architects, he has been a co-director since 2000 of Elemental, a firm that focuses on affordable housing and public-space design.

Elemental’s low-rise residential complexes are often produced in cooperation with residents themselves, featuring units that are -- by design -- half finished, allowing their owners to expand them incrementally over time. After an earthquake and tsunami hit Chile in 2010, the firm produced a reconstruction plan for the coastal city of Constitución.

“What really sets Aravena apart is his commitment to social housing,” said the citation from the jury, which this year included architects Richard Rogers, Yung Ho Chang and Benedetta Tagliabue and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. The award comes with a $100,000 cash prize.

Though still fairly young by architectural standards, Aravena is by no means an outsider or an unknown quantity. He served on the Pritzker jury from 2009 until 2015. Pritzker watchers looking for clues about potential winners perhaps needn’t have looked any further than the news that he left the jury last year.

Aravena has twice served as a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, in 2000 and 2005. He has a TED talk on his resume. And he will be the director of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy, a post that usually goes to a figure very well connected in the field.

Aravena's first built project was a mathematics classroom building for his alma mater. He has one project in the United States, a dormitory for St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, that was completed in 2008.

In recent years Aravena has begun designing prominent buildings for institutional and corporate clients, including one for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, a longtime patron of innovative architecture, that is under construction in Shanghai.

The older he gets, Aravena said, the more he finds himself trying to pare down his architecture. The influence of earlier figures who aimed for a certain timelessness in their buildings -- Louis Kahn is one obvious touchstone -- has grown more apparent in his work.

“We’ve been trying to move backwards, to a more irreducible core,” he said. “We are trying to go away from form.”

If a single recent project seemed to sway the Pritzker jury, it was Aravena’s Angelini Innovation Center, his latest design for Catholic University. The 14-story building, finished in 2014, is heavy and opaque on the outside, wrapped in concrete and punched through with deep-set windows, but light-filled and transparent on the interior, with glass walls overlooking a tall central atrium.

The arrangement has the benefit of putting much of the building’s mass on the outside, making it efficient to heat in winter and cool in summer. It also takes tired assumptions about what a contemporary “innovation center” ought to look like -- think a sleek tower wrapped in glass, with a heavy, hidden central core -- and turns them inside out.

“In the Angelini Innovation Center, the maturity of this architect is evident,” the jury noted.

Even as the Pritzker, founded in 1979 by the Hyatt Foundation in Chicago, remains the most coveted award in architecture, it would be fair to say some of the shine has come off the honor in recent years. The understanding of the profession on which it was founded -- to put it bluntly, that great architecture is produced by great men working largely for establishment clients -- has faced increasing criticism.

The Pritzker has honored 36 solo winners alongside just two architectural pairs. And 38 men to just two women.

Aravena is just the fourth Pritzker laureate from Latin America, and the first in a decade. Brazil’s Paulo Mendes da Rocha won in 2006, following Mexico’s Luis Barragán in 1980 and Oscar Niemeyer, the pioneering Brazilian Modernist, in 1988.

The jury seemed to acknowledge that the Pritzker needed to broaden its worldview.

“The role of the architect is now being challenged to serve greater social and humanitarian needs, and Alejandro Aravena has clearly, generously and fully responded to this challenge,” it wrote.

Aravena said that his own stint on the Pritzker jury, six years of flying around the world to see both old and new buildings, was a mixed blessing.

“It makes your life so difficult when you are all the time looking at this great, great architecture,” he said. “You tend to want to blow up your own projects. I was calling back to the office and saying, ‘Look, start from scratch. We are making a mistake here. It’s not good enough.’”

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @hawthornelat

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