On the Pritzker Prize 2017 and the Essence of Architecture

At the beginning of this month Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta of Spanish studio RCR Arquitectes have been named as the 2017 laureates of the Pritzker Prize, architecture's most prestigious award, and this is a wonderful annual event to give us the opportunity to talk and think about the significance of contemporary architecture.

The 2017 Pritzker Prize was a surprise to many, being awarded to three individuals for the first time since the prize began in 1979. Besides, this was a relatively low profile firm, located in the small town of Olot in Catalonia and I confess I was not too familiar with their work either. However, this does not diminish their importance, they have done fantastic work and deserve the praise.

Last week I participated in a conversational debate with a group of colleagues to talk about the prize, the firm's projects and core ideas, and how this meets the end of representing a contribution to the architecture practice. The dialogue was very interesting and offered a lot of food for thought, so I will take the chance to share some views around this topics.

Conversations on the Pritzker Prize 2017. Architects Paula Pujol and Juan Carlos Saenz. Mallol Architects.

Conversations on the Pritzker Prize 2017. Architects Paula Pujol and Juan Carlos Saenz. Mallol Architects.

First of all, I recommend the introductory videos about RCR Arquitectes placed below, extracted from the official website of The Pritzker Architecture Prize, as to understand more of what is behind their body of work.



In this way, there is mention of some key ideas not only for the firm's design process, but for contemporary architecture itself: the relationship with landscape and the simplicity of materials.

For us the landscape is more than green, it is also the sky, the trees, the atmosphere. It is the place that we want to be in relation with.



Pigem's words are a a nice reminder of the importance of visiting the place at the beginning of every new project. There is vital information you can only obtain when you are immersed in the place: the subtleties of the context and the inner space, which offer a panorama of possible relationships. This can speak to us in mayor levels, providing a clear view of the real potential and necessities of the site ― it gives a dose of reality of the place and enhances a process of discovery.

When we begin a project, we are very interested in visiting the place. There we can gain a lot of information. We are used to “reading” the place as if it spoke to us with its own alphabet. An alphabet established between the site and us.

We must start from the beginning and question everything, ask "what is this?". Every location has its own language and a special effort to decipher it should be made. Even though they are very born into the locality of Olot they point out the relevance of understanding each place, instead of simply transplanting their native architectural language when they build outside home.


Nature is undoubtedly a core element in their design and in reflects in the creation of atmospheres. A very valuable point is the idea of creating architecture that makes people "feel" it, evoking sensations of well being and beauty. We can consolidate some sort of magic through architecture, enhancing an uniqueness of place. 

Each place has its own magic. A great motivation force is to be able to discover the treasure of each place or where the magic resides. In the end, it is a question of what you on or what you don’t, what you want to come forth from the place or what you want to reduce, and the relationships you establish with that place so this can happen. 


Honesty of materials can instill high levels of sincerity and authenticity in architecture. In the case of RCR Arquitectes, they characterize with the utilization of few, natural materials. It is a call to strip everything down to its essential quality and achieve simplicity, and within this uniformity of materials to be able to create atmospheres with greater strength.

In our architecture we try to select few materials, to not distract the space. It’s the contrary, trying one material with a lot of registers, very different finishes and subtle changes; with only this one material make the space appear in a very pure way.

A great example of this is the project Les Cols Pavilions in Olot, as materiality plays a fundamental role in space. Glass is one of the capital materials of the project, and succeeds in distorting the transitions between spaces to generate fluid routes while endowed with privacy. This is a clear example of the tranquility and peace that architecture can transmit; just by seeing the photographs one can already see it must be quite an experience.

Hotel Les Cols - RCR Arquitectes - Diedrica Blog 03.jpg


There is a lot of value in the idea of collaboration and this is definitely a necessary aspect of architecture. Considering such a complex world we live in, we must nurture work that pays attention and feeds on the ideas of others apart from ourselves. To bear in mind a wide panorama of ideas and to believe in creation born from dialogue.

It is a source of happiness that for the first time three people receive the Prize. It represents and answer that we believe in needed in today’s complex world. Ideas arise from dialogue and conversation by more than one person. We have believed in dialogue.

Front facade of Barberí Laboratory.

Front facade of Barberí Laboratory.

One very positive surprise of getting to learn about the 2017 Pritzker Prize winners was to see a relationship between their external work and their architecture office, reflecting a coherence between speech and the creation of spaces.

Their office, nowadays called Barberí Laboratory, was acquired as an old foundry in a state of ruin in 2004, and over stages has gradually become RCR Arquitectes’ studio. The past of this factory building, constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century, is evident everywhere and establishes a very close relation with new interventions.

The connection between tradition and innovation, together with other core concepts of the RCR philosophy like relating to the outdoors and reflecting the passage of time, has given rise to an ensemble that combines different spaces and uses. The renovation work, which has been under way since 2006, consolidated the former complex and reorganised the existing industrial buildings, transforming them into a laboratory that meets their studio’s various needs. 

The previous building had smoke-laden walls, ceilings and floors from previous fires. The materials, colors and smells of the old furnace and chimneys provided the powerful starting point for the new project. There are three main parts to the office, the double-height library which runs along the length of the building, a second building opening onto the courtyard with workstations, and a new glass enclosed pavilion supported by iron columns. The original materials – wood, stone, and ceramics – are in contrast and dialogue with the new steel and glass, which were added to make highly functional and inspirational spaces. The trees and ferns in the interior courtyard spaces make both a divergence and a connection between architecture and nature.

From the experience of one of my colleagues, Paula Pujol, who had the opportunity to work in RCR Arquitectes' office for a couple of months we got to know some fun additional facts that make their design criteria evident throughout their work. Aspects like the respect for the existing environment resulted in a community of little spiders living inside the studio, coexisting with the architectural work taking place. Also, some spaces in the office were experienced with a barefoot, providing comfort to touch and taking advantage of the geotermic properties of the floor according to the season.

As Glenn Murcutt, chairman of the Pritzker jury, summed up, "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."

We can indeed take a lot from their work experience and their design ideas, and also the bravery of committing to their core principles on how to project architecture. On the videos they confess they probable were quite ingenuous in their beginnings, starting so young and without seeking further experience before they started their studio, but they made it. As Pigem comments, "We can say winning the Pritzker Prize in 2017 is to wake up, because the dream is done." We sometimes tend to be afraid of not having enough experience on certain field or being unprepared for a certain project or challenge, but when you create something special and mantain strong convictions with a pursue towards quality it will build up. 

Quality was another topic of the discussion, with a mention of the current architectural practice in Panama City, where the market is so driven by commercial aspects. It can be hard to create an opposing spectrum of design to what is conventional if the market does not have any interest in such attributes, but I believe that in the range of what is feasible, design must always reflect quality, a respect to place and a creation of beautiful atmospheres.

Let's think about what this beauty means and how it can be delivered in each project, let's play with a poetry of space that reflects an essence of place and our design values.

Even though we live in a globalized world, we should move away from "pre-fabricated architecture" that repeats all over the place, away from cities that don't feel like anything. It's like you could be anywhere and you could be nowhere at the same time and it all looks the same.

Instead, we must discover the magic behind an unique space, a space that is never to be repeated in the exact conditions and play with the environment and the essence of architecture, finding the elements that are really important.