Building for the Past: The Underlying Senility of the Pritzker Prize

Yesterday, while you were standing in line to buy your Powerball tickets, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena was named the winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize, which is (allegedly) the most prestigious award in international architecture. Aravena was praised by the awards committee with the kind of fawning that only social engineers can appreciate. “Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives,” gushed the chairman of The Hyatt Foundation, which awards the prize.

Let us consider each of these categorizations in turn.

What, precisely, is innovative about Aravena’s designs? There is nothing here which we have not seen, loathed, and torn down many times before. Aravena’s work is substantively and thematically indistinct from the oppressive concrete and steel monstrosities of the previous century, collectively but incorrectly often referred to as “Brutalism”, which have scarred cities and university campuses from Boston to Oxford for decades.

Take a look at Aravena’s Innovation Center for the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago, for example. I.M. Pei was building giant electrical outlets like this, such as the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, back in the 1970’s. In fact, here in the Nation’s Capital, we managed to tear down Pei’s similarly awful Third Church of Christ, Scientist just under two years ago.

We could also examine Aravena’s so-called Siamese Towers”, on the same university campus in Santiago. They differ little conceptually from the previous work of numerous modern architects who engaged in this sort of visual tease on a comparatively more impressive scale. Philip Johnson’s leaning glass towers of the Puerta de Europa, for example, have loomed over the Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid for two decades now.

Having dismissed the notion that Aravena’s work is innovative, what, then, is inspiring about it?

Ah for now, you see, we have come to the heart of the matter. Awarding an international prize to an otherwise unremarkable copyist from the developing world comes from the desire for SJW’s from the developed world with too much money and too little taste to sponsor projects which alleviate their inner guilt for remaining hypocritically wealthy in their own lifestyles, while still espousing left-wing ideals. For you see among other activities, Aravena builds “social housing” – i.e., housing projects.

Aravena’s Villa Verde complex, lauded by the prize committee, consists of 484 houses built for the workers of a Chilean forestry company. You would be forgiven for thinking that the architect forgot to finish building them. Each structure features a yawning gap on the right hand side, with only support trusses crossing the void.

The idea for this particular social experiment is to allow the workers to purchase their homes at a relatively low cost of around $20-40,000. Over time, the purchaser can finish building the rest of the house themselves. This, presumably, is the inspiring aspect of Aravena’s work; it is also the same social engineering nonsense which brought us slum housing estates all over the world.

Raise your hand along with me if you believe that, twenty years from now, most of these houses will still be in an unfinished state, with the exposed trusses failing due to the elements, insect/animal damage, vandalism, and so forth. It is difficult to imagine why, if one eventually had the wherewithal to spend another $40,000 to complete the missing half of one’s house, that one would want to continue to live in a box of communal party walls clad in cement board.

The international architectural establishment, indeed much like the contemporary art establishment, has not been interested in concepts such as beauty or universal truth for quite some time. It is also not particularly interested in encouraging projects that are built to last, or that are genuinely innovative. Rather, they have become the elderly bourgeoisie whom they deplore, groping in the darkness to recapture a now-faded and distant era of youth and excitement when anything seemed possible.

There is an underlying senility in the applause of international committees for work such as this, impotent and lacking in any kind of excitement as it is, other than for those who stand to profit from it. Yet as long as the egos of those who continue to commission and award prizes for buildings which only they love are satisfied, we are doomed to see only more of them. The lessons of the previous century’s pile of failed architectural and social experiments have clearly gone unheeded.

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Innovation Center, Pontificial Universidad Católica de Chile

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