Bold form: The buildings of Pritzker juror Alejandro Aravena in Santiago

Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena is known internationally for his role as Pritzker Prize juror and also for his work in the area of social housing. But he has also constructed many buildings around Chile -- including the bold new Innovation Center at the Catholic University.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

One in a series of dispatches by Carolina A. Miranda on the art and architecture of Chile.

Of the Chilean architects working today, Alejandro Aravena is the most high-profile — and, with his good looks and spiky salt-and-pepper hair, perhaps the most mediagenic.

Internationally, the 48-year-old architect is best known for his innovative work in low-income housing developments in communities around Chile (as well as one project in Mexico), which maintain density while providing amenities such as outdoor space and the ability to expand.


But he has an extensive resume worldwide. Since 2009, the 47-year-old architect has served as a juror for the Pritzker Prize — architecture’s most prestigious award — with the likes of figures such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Pritzker laureates such as Richard Rogers and Glenn Murcutt. He has taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (when he was still in his 30s) and delivered a TED talk on the nature of architecture and participatory design. In 2000, he was a finalist for the Mies Van Der Rohe Award, and in 2008, he won a Silver Lion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale.

In Chile, he also has an extensive portfolio of structures that go well beyond social housing projects. Aravena, in his private practice, along with his socially driven architecture office Elemental, have built structures all over Santiago — from private homes to office towers to classroom buildings. And some of his most significant works reside at the university from which he received his degree and at which he later taught: the Catholic University of Santiago, one of Chile’s oldest and most prestigious educational institutions.

The university’s San Joaquin campus, located south of downtown Santiago, is dotted with a trio of important Aravena-designed buildings: the Mathematics School, completed in 1998, which he helped reconceive, from a pair of existing Modernist structures (and for which he was nominated for the Mies Van Der Rohe Award); the Siamese Towers (Torres Siamesas), an administrative tower at the heart of the campus finished in 2005; and the just-completed Innovation Center, a building that, though it may sound impossible, tips its hat to brutalism as much as it does to transparency.

The Innovation Center, in particular, which was designed in collaboration with fellow architect Juan Cerda, is especially wondrous: a powerful concrete behemoth that secretly harbors a day-lit atrium composed of an oak-and-steel checkerboard geometry. It is the sort of structure that exerts its own gravitational pull.

In a future post, I’ll be exploring why Chile is having a bit of an architecture moment and why Chilean architects are enjoying, for the first time, international acclaim. But for now, I simply want to share my initial impressions of these key Aravena buildings, some of which offer plenty of reason to endure the crazy-long plane ride all the way to Santiago.

The photo essay at top features my images of the Innovation Center (whose interior is still being finished in parts), while the bottom contains images of the Mathematics School and the Siamese Towers.

Find me on the Twitter, @cmonstah. Want to see my architecture pix from around Santiago and beyond? Hit me up on Instagram @cmonstah.