Sometimes referred to as the ‘Nobel Prize of Architecture’, the Pritzker Architecture Prize is one of the most prestigious architecture awards in the world. The jury must choose from a short-list of nominations that typically includes some of the biggest names in the world of architecture. Previous laureates include the likes of Richard Meier, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. However, this year’s unexpected announcement has the international architectural community talking, as everyone suddenly wants to find out more about RCR Arquitectes.
Open since 1988, RCR Arquitectes is run by architects Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta, who went to the Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura del Vallés in the town of Sant Cugat, on the outskirts of Barcelona. They graduated in 1987 and returned to their native city of Olot a year later to open their own studio. Located in the north of Catalonia, in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, Olot is a relatively small city of some 33,000 inhabitants located about an hour and a half from Barcelona. It’s best known for being in the heart of the Garrotxa volcanic park, and Olot itself is surrounded by four volcanoes. However, the city has a long history of cultural activity and even gave rise to its own school of painting, namely the Olot School, and was chosen as the site of the main design school in the province, the Escola d’Art i Superior de Disseny d’Olot.
The 2017 announcement of the Pritzer Architecture Prize was surprising for another reason: this marks the first year that three people have been jointly awarded the prize. Previous editions had seen the prize go to two people, such as Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in 2001, or Kazuyo Sejima and Nishizawa in 2010. However, this is the first time that three artists received the prize together in recognition of the collaborative nature of ‘their intensely collaborative way of working together, where the creative process, commitment to vision and all responsibilities are shared equally’, according to the Pritzker announcement.
For only the second time in the history of the Pritzker Architecture Prize – which has been awarded each year since 1979 – the nationality of the prizewinners is Spanish. The last time a Spaniard won the prize was in 1996, when Rafael Moneo was praised as ‘as an architect with tremendous range, each of whose buildings is unique, but at the same time, uniquely recognisable as being from his palette’. Interestingly, most of Moneo’s designs have also been concentrated in his native Spain, with only one or two being located outside the country.
There are no grand international landmarks or controversial designs in their portfolio, rather they have dedicated the past three decades to helping shape the landscape of their native area. Aside from a handful of designs, most of their work can be found in the province of Catalonia and especially in the towns and cities near Olot. Of the work they designed in France, nearly all of them are located just over the border in the Midi-Pyrenees. Despite the proximity of much of their work, the Pritzker Jury affirmed that they ‘have had an impact on the discipline far beyond their immediate area. Their works range from public and private spaces to cultural venues and educational institutions, and their ability to intensely relate the environment specific to each site is a testament to their process and deep integrity.’
Their work is marked by a desire to work in harmony with the natural environment, frequently blurring the distinction between outside and inside, nature and human design. Metal and glass are materials of choice, both highlighting and standing in contrast with natural elements. ‘They’ve demonstrated that unity of a material can lend such incredible strength and simplicity to a building’, says Glenn Murcutt, Jury Chair. ‘The collaboration of these three architects produces uncompromising architecture of a poetic level, representing timeless work that reflects great respect for the past, while projecting clarity that is of the present and the future.’
It looks like the future is about to get a lot busier for the team at RCR Arquitects as they come to terms with their newfound celebrity status on the international stage.