Averana does not deserve to be unduly denigrated but there is something very strange about the way in which he is being described as “socially-engaged”. All architecture is socially-engaged, it may do so deceitfully, simply, badly or in a sophisticated manner. It may also do so DOWN A MEGAPHONE. To me Avarena’s work at Quinto Monroy while it shows some ingenuity as a formal exercise, is largely a rhetorical act and that fact is being ignored. And whilst it is interesting project, to afford it the status we have also granted to the work of a Siza or a Koolhaas or even a Murcutt belittles the whole award which now addresses the moral intention of the work rather than the quality of its design. Or even its beauty.

Plan of Malagueira, Evora, Portugal. Alvaro Siza
Plan of Malagueira, Evora, Portugal. Alvaro Siza

In his article announcing Alejandrao Aravena as the Pritzker winner Ed Heathcote suggests that handing the prize to the young Chilean architect offers hope to the architecture profession racked with self-doubt over its lack of purpose. “The award is a vaccination against accusations of irrelevance. How could anyone argue with that?” he concludes. It is an interesting question and one I wish to address briefly. How could anyone argue against it? By stating very clearly that Aravena’s work which shows promise, although it must be said, not a spectacular amount of originality when it comes to the creation of form, is at times, a theatre of social engagement.

How can someone argue against it? By pointing out that Aravena’s victory is a victory of image over substance. He won, according to the Pritzker citation, because he “epitomises the revival of a more socially engaged architect”. There is in that statement a strange remove from actually being “a socially engaged architect”, and more about an idea. We have to ask ourselves when this golden bygone time of social engagement exists? Do these predate the days of the Pritzker Award itself? Or is there some point in the doling out of awards when it engaged only in fripperies? Do we have to go through every architects’ portfolio and scour them for social housing?

And not just any social housing but social housing like Aravena’s in Quinta Monroy in Iquique, Chlie, which is effectively a platform, half a house and space for another part of the house to be built in. The rhetorical nature of the project is that the first part of the project is vertically adjacent rather than horizontally so. Because – let’s be clear – the idea of providing new homes to poor people with space into which they can grow is nothing new. What is new is the rhetorical way it is being done. Now I think the project produces an interesting effect, I like the collage, but as to it being the acme of social engagement… really?

Surely alterations and adaptations are the stuff of housing.