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2017 Pritzker Prize awarded to RCR Arcquitectes

Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta founded the firm in their native Spain in 1988

Portrait: Javier Lorenzo Domínguez. Left + bottom middle: Hisao Suzuki. Right: Eugeni Pons; Courtesy Pritzker Prize

Spanish studio RCR Arquitectes was announced today as the winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize, which is considered the profession’s highest honor. This is the first time the award is going to a trio of architects: Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta, who founded the firm in 1988 in their native Olot, a city of 34,000 in Spain’s Catalonian region.

The win was a surprise for many. For one, many of the firm’s major works—such as the Bell–Lloc Winery and El Petit Comte Kindergarten—are found in Spain. But that’s also part of the appeal.

The Pritzker jury writes:

We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that because of this international influence…we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs...Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both. They help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world.”

Curbed architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, had this to say about the win:

To say I was surprised by the 2017 Pritzker being awarded to RCR Arquitectes wouldn’t be quite right, because I had never heard of them. Their work, as presented on the Pritzker site, looks thoughtful, beautiful and almost defiantly local – however the jury citation wants to twist that into secret globalism. I can’t really comment on it, because I don’t think architecture is well-judged through photography and video, which are (of course) someone else’s opinion. I can see that the Pritzker has picked collaborators – three! – and added another woman, Carme Pigem, to the short list that includes Zaha Hadid and Kazuo Sejima. This is how architecture is really practiced so, thank you.

The critical line in the citation is this:

“We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both.”

The “both” here is living in a globalized world and not forgetting your roots. In a year when the reflexive answer to who might win the Pritzker seemed to be David Adjaye or Bjarke Ingels, the architects who generated the most press, on the most continents, choosing a firm better known within the profession indicates a desire by the prize-givers to surprise rather than to crown. I was recently consulted about another architecture prize, and argued that prizes should be given to make a difference in people’s careers, not to help the rich (in praise and wealth) get richer. It doesn’t sound like RCR Arquitectes wants or needs help, this is instead a positive affirmation of some old-fashioned architectural values.

My first thought as to Pritzker precedent was Glenn Murcutt, chair of this year’s jury, whose citation and essay also narrate a journey from the world back to home, culture and community, with the same spare list of materials and interest in roof structures. My eye was immediately drawn to their El Petit Comte Kindergarten, with its almost Japanese profile, central courtyard, and rainbow columns. Rarely has the desire to say “children play here” with many colors looked so elegant. Is that enough? This year, when that operation has been repeated over a multi-decade career, the Pritzker says yes. Who knows what message the jury will send in 2018?

Below, a look at some of RCR Arquitectes’s Pritzker-winning portfolio.

El Petit Comte Kindergarten, 2010, Besalú, Girona, Spain In collaboration with J. Puigcorbé
Hisao Suzuki
La Cuisine Art Center 2014 Nègrepelisse, France
Hisao Suzuki
La Cuisine Art Center 2014 Nègrepelisse, France
Hisao Suzuki
La Lira Theater Public Open Space, 2011, Ripoll, Girona, Spain In collaboration with J. Puigcorbé
Hisao Suzuki
Soulages Museum, 2014, Rodez, France In collaboration with G. Trégouët
Hisao Suzuki
Tossols-Basil Athletics Track 2000 Olot, Girona, Spain
Ramon Prat
Javier Lorenzo Domínguez