The fact that for the first time a Chilean has won the Pritzker Prize, the "Nobel" of architecture, was great news for the whole country, who saw last Monday's ceremony at United nations headquarters with pride. It's because Alejandro Araven's achievement is so important and symbolic that he has validated not only his own work but also his way of looking at the world from here, from the "end of the world".
Far from having that very common feeling of being tragically away from the big leagues, Aravena has triumphed from -- and maybe because of -- his original and insular identity. As many Latinos do, he has transformed the lack of resources into a big plus. Coming from Chile he knows about catastrophes, and he knows how to solve a lot with little.
"I guess that is associated with a kind of character of Chile," he said in an interview in 2009.
Following that path, Aravena has focused on answering questions that are really urgent and complicated in his area, rather than entertaining himself -- as the so called "starchitects" -- in building luxurious private houses, discotheques or big projects that might give him a lot of money and fame. He has given a deeper dimension to ambition, which is to try to answer the hot and difficult challenges of his field with new and original answers. That's why he has dedicated most of his professional life to study and build social and emergency housing, one of the most painful unresolved problems in Chile and in the developing world. A complex issue where sadly there are not many great architects who are interested in stepping in. Maybe this is why he was also chosen to be the Curator of the Venice Biennial of Architecture this year.
Architecture needs to address urban and social problems with passion and innovation. In addition, and very importantly, he has created an institution, which is the company Elemental. He didn't want to be the Lone Ranger who travels the world receiving applauses: he decided that the maximum luxury was to try to have normal family life, and to have time to do interesting projects with a group of partners that have worked together over the years.
So, without needing -or disguising himself as- a New Yorker, French or Japanese, has shown how you can make sense and beauty from austerity and hardship, and from a challenging geography that pushes us into isolation. Where many see only one way uphill, he has found vitality. A global, but very Chilean vitality.
We must celebrate Aravena, and transform this award, as he himself said, in a prize for an entire country. The country that are maybe not now, but we can become if we lift our heads and see what we can achieve when we build from our identity and our values.