As three Spanish unknowns win architecture’s Pritzker Prize, is this the death of the celebrity ‘starchitect’?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 March, 2017, 10:27am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 March, 2017, 9:29pm

Three relatively unknown Spanish architects – Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta - on Wednesday won the prestigious Pritzker Prize for modern works that are deeply rooted in their local surroundings.

The choice was seen as a move away from the celebrity architects that have dominated the field in favour of a trio of professionals who have worked together for 30 years in their hometown of Olot in Catalonia.

Nestled deep in the countryside of Spain’s northeast, Olot is surrounded by beech trees, marshes and volcanoes – a dramatic natural landscape that has long inspired their work.

In a globalised world, the prize announcement said, people increasingly fear “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 ... our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world,” it said.

Among their most celebrated buildings are the La Lira Theatre public space in Spain and the Soulages Museum in Rodez in southwestern France.

It is only the second time that the Pritzker Prize has gone to Spanish architects, and the first time that it has been shared by a trio.

“It is a great joy and a great responsibility. We are thrilled that this year, three professionals, who work closely together in everything we do, are recognised,” Pigem said. “Sometimes, it feels as if you have to choose between the local and the global. With us, everyone can understand that you can be closely tied to the local while being open to the world.”

Olot, it’s our little world
Architect Ramon Vilalta, on the importance of his firm’s Spanish hometown

The winners’ firm, RCR Arquitectes, has completed projects in Belgium, France and as far as Dubai, but the bulk of their work has been in Spain, much of it in Catalonia, a fiercely autonomous region where many want independence.

“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,” said Tom Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the prize.

Pigem and Vilalta, who are a couple, graduated from the Valles School of Architecture near Barcelona in 1987. They partnered with Aranda – who was also just out of university – to set up shop in Olot.

“Olot, it’s our little world,” Vilalta said in 2014 when the Soulages Museum was inaugurated.

Influenced by Barcelona’s modern architectural designs that burst into the limelight during the 1992 Olympic Games, they also cite painters like Mark Rothko and Pierre Soulages, and Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida as sources of inspiration.

Japan’s traditional architecture has also influenced their work. Their buildings reflect the simplicity and colours of their region, such as the omnipresent dark steel in their work that calls to mind volcanic rocks.

Jury chair Glenn Murcutt praised their creative use of modern materials including recycled steel and plastic to produce buildings of “incredible strength and simplicity”.

“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,” Murcutt said.

The prize will be awarded to the three Spaniards in Tokyo on May 20.