Pritzker Prize 2017: Catalan trio wins architecture's Nobel prize

Jonathan Glancey is a British architecture critic and author.

(CNN)The 2017 Pritzker Prize -- by common consent, architecture's equivalent of the Nobel prize -- has been awarded jointly to Catalan architects Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta.

"We live in a globalised world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened," the jury wrote in its citation.
"Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both."
They certainly do. Working together since 1988, when they founded RCR Arquitectes (RCR), Aranda, Pigem and Vilalta have shaped one exquisite modern building after another, each one -- from a winery to a kindergarten -- a delight for the senses.

    Poetics of architecture

    The Soulages Museum in Rodez, France
    This, the 39th Pritzker, is the first time the prize has gone to a trio of architects, yet as the citation says, "Their intensely collaborative way of working together, where the creative process, commitment to vision and all responsibilities are shared equally, led to the selection of the three individuals for this year's award."
    Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, the jury chair, said in a statement: "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."
    This poetry can be felt almost tangibly in the Bell-Lloc Winery, a building that, although decidedly modern (it was completed in 2007), is very much a part of the landscape of Palamós, a town near Girona, Spain.
    To the jury, the low-slung building, with its saw-toothed roof and inspirational views to the surrounding countryside, is "about the soil that produces the grapes, the cool dark cellars needed for the aging of wine and the color and weight of the earth."
    In Rodez in the south of France, RCR designed a museum dedicated to the artist Pierre Soulages that opened in 2014. Working with local architects Passelac et Roques, they shaped a building into a succession of cubes using just one material, Cor-Ten steel. The building is as single-minded, and yet as rich and as adaptive, as the work of Soulages himself.
    Equally convincing is La Lira, an open-air theater overlooking the Ter river in Ripoll, Spain that opened six years ago. This is the kind of anything-might-happen arts space many communities dream of, though very few manage to walk the tightrope between casualness and formality, openness and architecture as masterfully as RCR have done here.

    Deep-rooted humanity

    RCR Arquitectes' studio in Olot, Spain
    The humanistic approach to RCR's architecture is perhaps best expressed in the architects' studio in their hometown of Olot, Spain. The workspace that Aranda, Pigem and Vilalta share is a library with a large table, appropriate for hours of long conversations.
    In a statement, they meditate on the space: "Making a dream come true: discovering a place to dream in, with meetings, debates, conversations, silence, the garden, history, and... smelling and breathing. Creating: architecture and landscape. Sharing: for us and many others... Quietly getting on with our work."
    The original materials of the old building -- wood, stone, and ceramics -- they write, "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."
    Here are deeply aesthetic, yet unpretentious 21st-century architects promising to create a balance between our intensely modern world and the age-old senses and feelings we have for nature, place and sentiment.
    Aranda, Pigem and Vilalta are not the kind of architects who will ever be offered commissions for office towers, residential skyscrapers and shopping malls, and yet how civilized such buildings might yet be if they had just a little of the Catalan practice's deep-rooted humanity.