Three Little-Known Spanish Architects Win Architecture’s Top Prize

RIP, starchitecture. And good riddance.


Catalonian architects Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta, of RCR Arquitectes, are the winners of the 2017 Pritzker Architecture Prize. The commendation–akin to the industry’s Nobel Prize–goes to a firm that has quietly reinvented regional design. The choice is emblematic of evolving dynamics in the profession, and the priorities of architecture’s gatekeepers.

[Photo: Javier Lorenzo Domínguez]

The jury, which includes Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and was chaired by Glenn Murcutt, praised the architects for dedicating their careers to local work, enriching the region in which they’re based, and using regionalism to inform sublime architectural experiences. It’s the exact opposite of bombastic artistic signatures and the “starchitecture” marketing machines that characterize many of the past decade’s high-profile new buildings.

Nuance, collaboration, and specificity are becoming more important than a stroke of a singular genius or creating an iconic image. The jury explains:

Their works admirably and poetically fulfill the traditional requirements of architecture for physical and spatial beauty along with function and craftsmanship, but what sets them apart is their approach that creates buildings and places that are both local and universal at the same time . . . The process they have developed is a true collaboration in which neither a part nor whole of a project can be attributed to one partner. Their creative approach is a constant intermingling of ideas and continuous dialogue.

All their works have a strong sense of place and are powerfully connected to the surrounding landscape. This connection comes from understanding–history, the natural topography, customs, and cultures, among other things–and observing and experiencing light, shade, colors and the seasons. The siting of buildings, the choice of materials and the geometries used are always intended to highlight the natural conditions and pull them into the building.

RCR’s most notable projects include the Bell-Lloc winery, a structure built into a hillside in Girona, Spain; the Soulages Museum, a cubic Corten-clad building in France; the El Petit Comte Kindergarten, an airy and open Spanish school embellished with prismatic hues; and the La Lira theater, a cavernous public space.

In 2016, the Pritzker went to social housing pioneer Alejandro Aravena, in 2015 it was posthumously awarded to structural innovator Frei Otto, and in 2014 it was bestowed on humanitarian architect Shigeru Ban, who has dedicated his career to disaster relief and emergency housing.

Taken alongside their recent Pritzker-winning peers, RCR illuminates a path forward for an industry struggling with identity and communication. Think locally, work for those who aren’t normally privileged to capital-a Architecture, and design with sensitivity.

[Photos (unless otherwise noted): Hisao Suzuki/courtesy Pritzker Architecture Prize]

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.