Architecture becomes a tool to fight poverty through this Pritzker winner

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, architecture's highest prize, the Pritzker, was announced today.

Jeffrey Brown introduces us to a man who is little known outside his own field, but who's working to address big issues that affect us all.

JEFFREY BROWN: He calls it half a good house, which sounds like a bit of a joke, but is meant very seriously.

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA, Winner, 2016 Pritzker Prize: The location, it's so important.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Alejandro Aravena, it's a practical and aesthetic solution to a real world problem: growing urban populations and too little public money available to build affordable, but livable housing.

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA: It's not half of a house. It's half of a good house. And the good is the entire difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's the kind of seemingly simple, but big thinking that has won Aravena the Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest award.

He spoke with us earlier this week from his office in Santiago, Chile.

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA: Our entry point was just because we thought we were skilled designers and we had at the core of our profession a very powerful tool to tackle complex issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: Forty-eight-year-old Aravena is the first Chilean to win the prize. He heads a firm called Elemental, a self-styled architectural, problem-solving do-tank, rather than think-tank.

He's designed a number of buildings for Santiago's Catholic University of Chile, among them, the Siamese Tower, a mathematics center, an innovation center, all built with energy efficiency and Chile's climate in mind and, as with his buildings elsewhere in the world, in the belief that architecture too often swings between a focus on either icon or utility.

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA: A good object should be able to do both. With this eye, it should be that place that you don't even pay attention to, but it's there to support and qualify everyday life.

As soon as you look at it with the other eye, it should be able to be that cultural object with artistic sculptural qualities. For some reason, good objects have the capacity to do both. It happens very rarely in the history of architecture, i mean, really rarely, once every decade or something. That's my kind of experience.

But, nevertheless, despite the difficulty to achieve such double condition, at least that's what I think is the aim of good architecture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Aravena's work in urban housing draws the most attention. According to the Pritzker jury citation, he epitomizes the revival of a more socially engaged architect, especially in his long-term commitment to tackling the global housing crisis and fighting for a better urban environment for all.

According to the U.N., in 2009, the number of urban residents surpassed those living in rural areas, a trend in the making for decades and expected to grow.

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA: We're living in an urban age. The same way that there has been the Stone Age and — or the Bronze Age, we're living in the urban age.

The problem is that the scale and the speed and scarcity of means with which we have to respond to this process of urbanization has no precedent in human history. So, we need to generate new knowledge in order to accommodate the people migrating towards cities.

If we don't do so, it's not that people will stop coming to cities. They will come anyhow, but they will live in slums and favelas and informal settlements.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this new world, Aravena says, architects must engage first and foremost with what we'd often think of as non-architectural issues.

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA: This should be the starting point for architecture: Identify problems that are simple enough that you get the threat or the challenge in one word, pollution, waste, congestion, insecurity, migration, social tension. Those are the kind of issues that we tend to identify rather quickly in cities.

JEFFREY BROWN: The half a good house idea is one answer, so-called incremental housing built at low cost, half of the structure with the basics provided through public funding, the other half to be filled in and completed by the owners as and when they can.

The result: People can remain close to city centers, jobs and resources while living in their own homes. And instead of standardized high-rise projects, these customized homes can gain value with sweat equity.

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA: Because, in the end, a housing policy shouldn't be a mere shelter against the environment. It should work as a tool to overcome poverty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Aravena's firm has built more than 2,500 of these units to date in Chile and Mexico. On a larger scale, he's overseeing a plan to reconstruct the Chilean city of Constitucion after it was devastated by a 2010 earthquake and tsunami.

Here, as elsewhere, he's taken a participatory approach, asking local residents to get involved, weigh in, even vote on development approaches.

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA: We wanted to introduce people as part of the discussions. And, by doing that, that new kind was a consortium that wasn't there before. So, we were channeling public money, private money and people's opinion and synthesizing all those forces in the design for the future of the city.

JEFFREY BROWN: Aravena hopes the Pritzker Prize will help spread his ideas about socially engaged architecture.

ALEJANDRO ARAVENA: The feeling that is here in the office is that of freedom, of now we are more comfortable in taking even more risks into going in unexplored fields. The path ahead, I think, is unwritten.

JEFFREY BROWN: Aravena will get to promote his vision further on an international stage later this year, when he serves as director of the prestigious Venice Architecture Biennale.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.