The Venice Biennale of Architecture 2012. It is hot and the Spanish pavilion is packed with architects, guests and journalists. Amid the hubbub, Carme Pigem, one of the architects participating in the exhibition, is watching the goings on from a distance. She seems more concerned about not losing sight of her daughter. The biennials are the perfect setting for large panels, with the latest technology on display. However, Carmen Pigem, who founded RCR Architects together with Rafael Aranda and Ramon Vilalta, is there to present a collapsible toilet that uses 50% less water. It is no joke but, rather, a deep reflection of their investigative process, far removed from the media hubbub and passing trends. This search has brought them a lot of success: yesterday they were awarded the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel Prize of architecture, thanks to their "unyielding commitment to place and its narrative, to create spaces that are in tune with their respective contexts. Harmonizing materiality with transparency", according to the Pritzker jury’s verdict, which goes on to say that "Aranda Pigem and Vilalta seek connections between the exterior and the interior, resulting in emotional and experiential architecture". The prize is worth $100,000 and will be awarded on 20 May in Tokyo.
A good example of a dialogue with context can be found in their most recent work, which is also their largest: the Waalse Krook Centre for New Media in the historic centre of Ghent, Belgium, a building resembling a collection of stone slabs. Belgium is home to one of RCR’s most lyrical projects, the Hofheide Crematorium, whose curved steel parts create a dialogue with the bark of the nearby trees. Nevertheless, neither of these works undoubtedly exceeds the delicacy with which they approached the pre-existing landscape when they conceived the Tossols-Basil athletics track in Olot, where they are based.
A land of extinct volcanoes
Three of the members of the jury may have played a special role in choosing this year’s winner: the Australian Glenn Murcutt and Britain’s Richard Rogers are both connoisseurs of Catalan architecture. In addition, both Murcutt and RCR Architects excel in undertaking projects for houses that are rooted in their surroundings. Benedetta Tagliabue, another member of the jury, told ARA that "the whole jury was truly captivated by RCR’s ability to be simultaneously local and universal. They are incredibly radical, practising an architecture with an amazing purity, and its radical nature has to do with the original meaning the word, the fact of being in contact with one’s roots. Surprisingly, the volcanic soil which surrounds them where they work means they have a universal message".
A good example of how a local perspective can reach around the world is one of RCR’s current projects, turning Mas Miró into a museum, another creator [Joan Miró] who, from a place like Mont-Roig del Camp had a global impact. For the Executive Director of the prize, Martha Thorne, the architecture of RCR represents "an experience for all the senses: the light, the sky, the trees, the stars, the mountains in their surroundings ... even its smell". Another of the qualities which was rewarded by the jury is their versatility: "With their architecture they are capable of undertaking any kind of project. Not only the most elitist, such as restaurants and hotels, but also public spaces, schools and museums. This ability to create public spaces is truly representative of them and many architects from here", adds Tagliabue.
RCR Architects are only the second Spanish firm to have won the Pritzker, since Rafael Moneo received the award in 1996. It is the first time that it has been awarded to three architects —with Carme Pigem being the third woman to have won— and the jury emphasised the fact that rather than awarding the prize to a conventional firm of architects, they have awarded three artists who have been working collaboratively for almost 30 years. The Dean of the Architects’ Association of Catalonia, Lluís Comerón, agrees that RCR’s work, which includes the Soulages Museum, Les Cols restaurant and the Lira Theatre, goes beyond their function. "They strive to and excel at ensuring that architecture generates emotions, feelings and that it conveys a sense of the environment and an interpretation of the world". Comerón also identifies such talent in the late Enric Miralles, who RCR agree would have been a deserving recipient of the award.
Among the most prominent projects undertaken by the trio of architects is the pavilion belonging to Les Cols restaurant in Olot (1990); The public open space of the Lira Theatre, Ripoll (2003-2011); the Bell-Lloc winery, Palamos (2003-2007); the Sant Antoni-Joan Oliver Library, Barcelona (2007); the Soulages Museum, Rodez (2008-2014); the art museum in Nègrepelisse Castle (France), and the Hofheide Crematorium (Belgium). Their first projects were the pavilion and exterior of Can Cardinal and the Bathing Pavilion (Espai Fluvial Prat de Gola). The Pritzker jury also noted that they "seek connections between the exterior and the interior, resulting in emotional and experiential architecture".
Discrete and international
The Pritzker Prize represents the triumph of three oddballs in Catalan architecture: they studied in the Vallès School of Architecture rather than in Barcelona city and a trip to Japan at the start of their career left a profound impression on them. "They are by far the best known contemporary Catalan architects. They are selective, but if it is a challenge they gladly accept. If they are put to the test, they find it stimulating. They continually experiment, never repeating themselves, they take risks, they are very demanding. Despite having received awards and recognition, they don’t quite believe how successful they’ve become", says the architect and Barcelona’s Councillor for Housing, Josep Maria Montaner, curator of the exhibition RCR Architects-Shared Creativity at the Palau Robert. Montaner believes that "their work is highly symbiotic. Each has their own personality but they complement one another. They share the work. The drawings are more Rafael’s, Ramon is the artist, while Carmen is more mystical and realistic ... but these roles are totally interchangeable".
RCR had already won many architectural awards, such as the French Academy of Architecture’s Gold Medal and Member of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic and the Catalan Government’s National Culture Prize of 2005.