Alejandro Aravena, The Man Who Builds Half-Finished Homes

Two years ago in late 2014, Alejandro Aravena delivered a gripping TED talk on his work as an architect. His speech mimicked the ideals and the power of his design: Wired writes that he “turned his back to the audience” to draw equations and sketches on the blackboard, underscoring his commitment to process rather than the finished product. Following the 2014 TED talk, Aravena, a 48-year-old architect from Santiago, Chile, went on to with the highly coveted Pritzker Prize. His ’14 TED talk now stands as a monument to his forge style of design: “incremental design.” The approach, also employed by the designers at his studio, Elemental, build “housing structures that are deliberately unfinished.”

Aravena believes that leaving the structures half-finished gives future residents a chance to complete their respective unites as they saw fit, resulting in culturally appropriate homes that actually look and feel like homes. Wired writes that the before and after pictures of the Quinta Monroy Housing project that Aravena worked on in 2004 in Iquique, Chile are mystifying: Before tenants moved in, the structures looked like “row houses built from gray slabs,” but afterwards, each home looked unique to the homeowner but unified to the design.

For more than 15 years Aravena has worked on projects similar to the one at Quinta Monroy. He studied architecture in Chile and taught at Harvard. His work has not been without controversy, however. His personal belief is that temporary shelters in times of disaster are a “waste of money.” Instead he advocates for the quick construction of “incremental” structures built for the long term that allow individual families to flesh out the details. In an interview with the New York Times, Aravena said, “We transform the lack of resources into a principle of incrementality. Let’s do now what is more difficult. Let families take care of the rest through their own means.”

Tom Pritzker, the chairman and president of the Hyatt Foundation which sponsors the Pritzker Prize said in a statement that Aravena’s work “gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space. Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.”

In addition to being the first Pritzker Prize winner from Chile, the London Design Museum also named the Anacleto Angelini UC Innovation Center that sits on the Universidad Católica de Chile’s campus in Santiago as the “design of the year,” and in 2015 Aravena served as the director-curator for the Venice Biennale. The basis for that design — an intimidating, monolithic concrete structure that fawns out to reveal gorgeous windows and doorways — and so many others, Aravena says is “not about technology. This is just archaic, primitive, common sense.”

The Network
Whale Global