Alejandro Aravena is the 2019 ULI J.C. Nichols Prize winner. (Photo by Sergio Lopez Isla)

Internationally acclaimed architect Alejandro Aravena, whose rise to prominence stemmed from his ability to synthesize design challenges to provide solutions that channel people’s capacity to create vibrant communities, has been named the 2019 recipient of the ULI’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.

The ULI J.C. Nichols Prize honors the legacy of Kansas City, Missouri, developer J.C. Nichols, a founding ULI member considered one of America’s most creative entrepreneurs in land use during the first half of the 20th century. Aravena, a lifelong resident of Chile, is the first Latin American to be awarded the prize, which recognizes an individual who has made a distinguished contribution to community building globally, who has established visionary standards of excellence in the land use and development field, and whose commitment to creating the highest-quality built environment has led to the betterment of society. He will be honored as the 20th Nichols laureate and be a featured speaker at ULI’s 2019 Fall Meeting, September 18–21 in Washington, D.C.

Aravena, who was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2016, is the founder of ELEMENTAL, a Santiago-based architecture firm at which he is a partner with Gonzalo Arteaga, Juan Cerda, Victor Oddó, and Diego Torres.

ELEMENTAL, which he refers to as a “do tank” (rather than a think tank), has designed extraordinary buildings and places around the world, including several environmentally innovative spaces at Universidad Católica de Chile; flexible office space in Shanghai; dormitory space at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas; the Jan Michalski Foundation’s writers residences in Montricher, Switzerland; the Art Mill cultural center in Doha, Qatar; and a new development at the Energias de Portugal headquarters site in Lisbon.

Aravena and ELEMENTAL are equally renowned for projects of public interest and social impact, including affordable housing, public space, infrastructure, and transportation. Through this work, Aravena and his ELEMENTAL partners focus on overcoming limited resources with synthesized designs that address major urban challenges affecting people’s quality of life.

“When we create a design proposal, we factor in all the dimensions at the same time, and what we are designing addresses all the forces—economic, political, social, environmental, even aesthetical—that inform a building or place,” Aravena said.

One example of this approach is the incremental housing designed by ELEMENTAL for residents of the Chilean city of Constitución following a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2010. Incremental housing involves providing the basic structure of the dwelling (which Aravena refers to as “half of a good house, instead of a small one”), leaving the remainder to be completed by residents, allowing them to customize their homes and instilling in residents a sense of pride and accomplishment.

This approach, which proved highly successful in Constitución, was deemed by ELEMENTAL to be the most cost-efficient way to quickly house thousands of people in need of a place to live. While it was a response for residents displaced by a catastrophe, it is an approach Aravena believes could be replicated to increase the supply of affordable housing in other cities.

Selection of Aravena as the Nichols laureate “continues a tradition of citing people who have big, bold ideas,” said Michael Spies, Nichols Prize jury chairman, ULI trustee, and senior managing director of Tishman Speyer in New York City.

“His approach to architecture is one of really wanting to understand who will be using a space or affected by a space, and how the space will fit within the constellation of activities around it,” Spies said. “From the start of a project, he focuses on absorbing all the dynamics, circumstances, and challenges that could be affected by that physical form so its impact will be as broadly beneficial as possible.”

ELEMENTAL’s holistic approach is one that was advocated by J.C. Nichols, who wrote in 1919, “An intelligent city plan thinks impartially for all parts of the city at the same time and does not forget the greater needs of tomorrow in the press of today. It is simply good, practical, hard sense.” This statement still holds true 100 years later, said Aravena, noting that every aspect of his work—and his belief in the resourcefulness of people to help solve urban challenges—is about using common sense.

“Too often in the built environment, what dominates is the commonplace. Let’s exchange the commonplace for common sense,” Aravena said. “If we are rigorous and bold in pursuing that, we may have a chance to intelligently plan the built environment for the generations to come.”

In addition to Spies, jury members were ULI trustees A. Eugene Kohn, founder and chairman of KPF, New York City; Jodie W. McLean, chief executive officer of EDENS, Washington, D.C.; and Leslie Woo, chief development officer of Metrolinx, Toronto; as well as Maurice Cox, director of the City of Detroit Department of Planning and Development.

“The main contribution architecture makes to the built environment is what it inspires in human behavior,” McLean said. “One of Alejandro’s greatest accomplishments is the process in which he’s connected architecture and working with communities, taking care to include people’s ideas on how to make a better environment to improve all parts of the community. He doesn’t just draw solutions; he strives [for his work] to be part of the solution.”

“The selection of Alejandro represents the notion that communities of the future require collaboration to move forward,” Woo said. “He exemplifies the importance of working across the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors, different levels of government, and all layers of the community, as well as the importance of understanding the connection between the built environment and the natural environment. He represents the integrator, which [is a role] our industry very much needs.”

Aravena was director of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016, and a speaker at the TEDGlobal conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2014. He was one of 100 luminaries who contributed to the Rio+20 global summit on sustainable development in 2012. In 2010, he was named an International Fellow by the Royal Institute of British Architects and one of the 20 “new heroes of the world” by Monocle magazine; he was named one of the 26 creative geniuses of 2016 by the New York Times. He is a board member of the LSE Cities program at the London School of Economics, a regional advisory board member of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, a board member of the LafargeHolcim Foundation, and a founding member of the Chilean Public Policies Society.

Aravena was a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 2000 to 2005 and taught at Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia in 2005. He has held the ELEMENTAL Copec Chair at Universidad Católica de Chile since 2006.