Why did a group of unknown architects just win the Pritzker prize, and could this indicate a new trend in the world of architecture?
The Pritzker Prize is the most prestigious of all the awards existing in the world of architecture. It has been awarded since 1979, and Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, and many other famous architects have all been honoured with it in past years. Last year, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena received the prize for his concept of low-cost housing. On March 1, new winners were announced. For the first time in the history of the Prize, the award was given not to one, but to three architects: Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta, from the Spanish bureau RCR Arquitectes. They have been close collaborators since 1988 and are known for their keen attention to detail and careful and high-quality execution. In the official statement, the jury commented that the trio’s “ability to intensely relate to the environment specific to each site is a testament to their process and deep integrity”, and provided as an example the Barberi Space project — an early XX century foundry building converted into a contemporary office space for the bureau. Strelka Magazine talked to industry experts and found out what they think about this year’s winners and what, in their view, motivated the jury’s choice.
If we consider the winners of recent years, it becomes evident that there’s no shared agenda. It is not a case of us being aware of the winners beforehand and knowing that “that’s the way it’s supposed to be”. Thanks to the Pritzker Prize, we are constantly faced with new questions: who are these people, what do they do, why them, and why now?” This absence of an obvious principle for selecting the winners is a sign of our times. The Pritzker Prize is often called the “Nobel Prize of architecture”. It is awarded for high achievement, but that doesn’t mean that some architects are better than others. Every year people seek a message or an agenda. In the time when “starchitects” ruled the day, a victory could be easily explained by the fame and scale of the architect’s work. But architecture is not just about making an impression, it’s also about art and about the craft. And that is what makes RCR Arquitectes worthy of their prize. On the bureau’s website, there are more drawings than photos of realised projects. And these drawings show that between the creation of an image and the appearance of a physical object, there’s a lot of hard work involved. There’s no aspiration to surprise or amaze here, only to make things beautiful and precise, which is actually not that easy. Their work is also a good example of how architecture can be a reflection of the place that it inhabits. RCR Arquitectes are not the only proponents of this approach, but they are a good choice, as well as a lesson and an example to us all, especially to young professionals.
There’s a certain tendency in Russia where architects search for and want to realise only big ideas, thinking that only these will allow them to create decent and important work. Several crucial aspects are often lost along the way: an understanding of quality, precision, scrupulous work, and attention to detail. The work of RCR Arquitectes is a true inspiration and should be studied by all, simply because it possesses what a lot of architecture lacks.
Due to the processes of stagnation evident in the global development of architecture today, there’s a certain lack of regard for truly professional content. Despite having access to almost any kind of information, people have lost track of what is happening in their profession. At least, that is what I see. Personally, the more I study various critical works, the more I become interested in the primary sources. Everything else is just an interpretation. That is why, to me, the Pritzker Prize is important only as an indicator of new trends: what are they trying to say by selecting RCR Arquitectes, for example? For young architects, it’s slightly different: they are trying to integrate into the professional community and they need to understand who their competitors are.
But generally speaking, there’s a crisis in the industry, and in the awards system in particular. There’s a strong need for revision and reevaluation. The fact that the Pritzker was given not to famous architects, but to professional architects, is a breath of fresh air, and a clear attempt to reconsider the values and attributes of professionalism. It’s as if they are saying that sometimes to create something safe is a thousand times better than to create something ludicrous simply in order to stand out. It’s a philosophical question and one that the Prize is trying to find an answer to, while also searching for new professional trends.
This year’s choice of winners — three unknown Catalonian architects — reinforces two tendencies within the global architectural agenda. Firstly, it’s a move away from the total domination of the so-called “starchitects”, whose work has been receiving more and more criticism in recent years, due to its steady decrease in quality. Secondly, it’s a shift of focus to local architecture, as opposed to the approach of the above-mentioned celebrity architects, working from their London offices and designing for Arab sheikhs.
The first signs of change came with the Venice Biennale in 2014, when Rem Koolhaas, the curator of that year, created the first non-celebrity biennale by inviting none of his famous colleagues, who in the past 10 years had occupied every pavilion of the exhibition. The irony, of course, lay in the fact that Koolhaas himself is a model starchitect, even if with an intellectual subtext present. Biennale-2016 continued the trend with Alejandro Aravena at its helm — an architect with a strong focus on social responsibility. Not coincidentally, he also turned out to be the Pritzker Prize winner that year.
But despite the fact that Aravena was not part of the “starchitects clan”, he was already quite well-known in the architectural world. This year, though, the jury took a much more radical step: even among professionals very few have actually heard of RCR Arquitectes — a collective working exclusively in their native region and with a developed sensitivity to the local context. So if you’ve never heard of this year’s Pritzker Prize winners, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The jury’s decision showed that global recognition is not the prerogative of a narrow circle of celebrity architects and that locally-based high-quality architecture will get its due. It is also a good thing for the award itself, which otherwise risked turning into an event dedicated solely to distributing prizes for past achievements. Discovering new stars is much more interesting than honouring the old ones.
Up until the announcement of this year’s Pritzker Prize winners, I had never heard of RCR Arquitectes. But after having studied their work, I came to the conclusion that what they are creating is very contemporary architecture. And it is contemporary not because of its technological innovation, but because it truly combines the local and the global, and not on an ethnographic level, but on the contextual, architectural level. And here we must give credit to the jury, as they managed to escape all the possible pitfalls. Firstly, they did not give the prize to a “starchitect”; otherwise, they could have been accused of only honouring celebrity architects. Secondly, they did not give the prize to a representative of an exotic tradition, like they had done in 2012 with Wang Shu. Thirdly, they did not award a socially responsible housing architect. Last year, when Alejandro Aravena won the Prize, Patrick Schumacher said that awards should be given for architecture and not for social activism. In 2017, contextual architecture won. Another interesting aspect: there are three winners this year, which is a step away from the cult of the one and only architect. Each year the Pritzker Prize is different. That’s the charm of this award: every choice has to be analysed for its significance, not simply accepted. This year it’s global and local, last year it was social and new ways of organising life, before that: technological innovations and new aesthetics. They are not looking for trends; they are smarter than that.
Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta from RCR Arquitectes were awarded the most prestigious architectural award on the planet for their “ability to express the local, but also the universal, uniting us with one another through architecture”. Hello to the post-Trump world!
Two things are to be noted here: first of all, the Pritzker continues to follow its socio-political course, and even post-factum, the question of the relationship between the local and the global remains extremely relevant in 2017. The trend started when Shigeru Ban and Alejandro Aravena received their prizes for addressing the issues of the refugee crises and global poverty in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Secondly, RCR Arquitectes are not at all media personalities: I admit, I had known nothing about them until I found out about their victory, except maybe for glancing with one eye over one or two of their projects. That is to say that as long as there’s no Wikipedia page for RCR, this victory remains a good opportunity to discuss how the media distorts the architectural process.