Photos: The elegant, problem-solving designs by architecture’s top prize winner

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Elemental constructed lookout points on the promenade in Constitución, Chile. The construction was part of Chile's Post-Tsunami Sustainable Reconstruction Plan. Photo by Felipe Diaz

Elemental constructed lookout points on the promenade in Constitución, Chile. The construction was part of Chile’s Post-Tsunami Sustainable Reconstruction Plan. Photo by Felipe Diaz

Alejandro Aravena, an architect known for his innovative approach to solving urban problems through social design, received the Pritzker Prize on Wednesday.

Aravena, 48, is the first recipient from Chile and the fourth from Latin America. He is the head of Elemental, an architecture firm based in Santiago, Chile that focuses on projects that have a social impact. The firm, which has designed 2,500 low-cost housing units, is known for its emphasis on participatory design, using input and materials from the communities in which they build projects.

These low-income housing units, designed by Araveno, were built in 2010 in Monterrey, Mexico. The houses were constructed to seem half-completed, a choice meant to encourage people to add their own contributions to the structure. Photo by Ramiro Ramirez

These low-income housing units, designed by Araveno, were built in 2010 in Monterrey, Mexico. The houses were constructed to seem half-completed, a choice meant to encourage people to add their own contributions to the structure. Photo by Ramiro Ramirez

The Pritzker Prize, which is now considered the highest honor in architecture, was first awarded in 1979 to Philip Johnson. The prize is awarded each year to someone who “has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture,” according to a statement from the prize committee.

This image shows the interior for the Angelini Innovation Center for the Catholic University's campus in San Joaquin, Chile. Photo by James Florio

This image shows the interior for the Angelini Innovation Center for the Catholic University’s campus in San Joaquin, Chile. Photo by James Florio

Aravena’s designs in Chile and beyond have focused on how to rethink urban environments in order to produce designs that add to the common good. “More and more people in the world are searching for a decent place to live, yet the conditions to achieve this are becoming tougher by the hour,” he wrote for The Guardian in November.

His work for the Catholic University in Santiago, Chile, “shows an understanding of how people will use the facility, the thoughtful and appropriate use of materials, and a commitment to creating public spaces to benefit the larger community,” the prize committee said in a statement. He has produced housing developments for low-income residents in Monterrey, Mexico, and Iquique, Chile, where his designs left part of the structure unfinished so that residents could contribute their own construction to the house. Elemental also worked on projects to reconstruct and revitalize the city of Constitución, Chile, after a 2010 earthquake and tsunami left Chile’s metropolitan areas damaged.

Aravena said in a statement Wednesday that he felt galvanized by the prize to continue his work. “The prestige, the reach, the gravitas of the prize is such that we hope to use its momentum to explore new territories, face new challenges, and walk into new fields of action,” he said.

This year was already set to be a big one for him; he will serve as the director of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, which will showcase some of the latest and most innovative architecture projects in the world from May 28 to Nov. 27. This year’s biennale is titled “Reporting from the Front” and will explore projects by architects who are producing projects for social good.

Aravena will receive a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion with the prize. Check out more of his designs below and watch the PBS NewsHour tonight for more.

Elemental built a series of low-income housing units at the request of the Chilean government at the Quinta Monroe housing development in Iquique, Chile. Photos by Cristobal Palma

Elemental built a series of low-income housing units at the request of the Chilean government at the Quinta Monroe housing development in Iquique, Chile. Photos by Cristobal Palma

This Elemental design was for a writer's cabin for the Jan Michalski Foundation in Montricher, Switzerland. Photo by +2 Architectes

This Elemental design was for a writer’s cabin for the Jan Michalski Foundation in Montricher, Switzerland. Photo by +2 Architectes

Medical School at the Universidad Católica de Chile (2004) in Santiago, Chile. Photo by Roland Halbe

Medical School at the Universidad Católica de Chile (2004) in Santiago, Chile. Photo by Roland Halbe

Aravena designed this pair of towers, constructed in 2005, for the Universidad Católica de Chile. Photo by Cristobal Palma

Aravena designed this pair of towers, constructed in 2005, for the Universidad Católica de Chile. Photo by Cristobal Palma

Aravena designed several structures for the Universidad Católica de Chile, including the Mathematics Building, pictured here. Photo by Cristobal Palma

Aravena designed several structures for the Universidad Católica de Chile, including the Mathematics Building, pictured here. Photo by Cristobal Palma

Aravena designed the Angelini Innovation Center for the Catholic University's campus in San Joaquin, Chile. Photo by Felipe Diaz

Aravena designed the Angelini Innovation Center for the Catholic University’s campus in San Joaquin, Chile. Photo by Felipe Diaz

Constitución Cultural Center in Chile (2014). Photo by Felipe Diaz

Constitución Cultural Center in Chile (2014). Photo by Felipe Diaz

A wide view of the Children's Bicentennial Park in Santiago, Chile, which Elemental designed and constructed. Photo by Cristobal Palma

A wide view of the Children’s Bicentennial Park in Santiago, Chile, which Elemental designed and constructed. Photo by Cristobal Palma

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