No art form is as firmly rooted in physical surroundings as much as architecture. This year’s winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, RCR Arquitectes from Spain, masterfully exemplifies the attention to the relationship between location and construction.

Creating beautiful buildings requires not just knowledge of structural design, but an understanding of how they fit into their settings. This year’s winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the industry’s biggest honor, is RCR Arquitectes. The Spanish firm was founded in 1988 by Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta in their hometown Olot in Catalonia.

Despite a wealth of eye-catching projects like the La Lira Theatre Public Space in Ripoll, Spain, which turns the void of a demolished theater into a seamlessly integrated community center, RCR were an unexpected choice for the prize. Winners of architecture’s most prestigious award typically come from a “starchitect” pedigree, with a single name representing the work. RCR’s collaborative nature breaks the mold.

“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,” said Glenn Murcutt, Jury Chair, in an announcement of the award.

former theater La Lira in Ripoli
New space in Ripoll, Spain.
Photo: Hisao Suzuki

International acclaim, local focus

The studio operates out of a renovated foundry in the architects’ native town of Olot, a small 35,000 population center in the Catalan region of Spain. Dubbed The Barberi Laboratory, their office exemplifies themes found in much of their other work: rugged steel construction that fits effortlessly into its surroundings to create an unlikely calming effect. The original industrial shell remains, but houses a peaceful library-like atmosphere that has been likened to a teahouse.

The locales of their projects span from France, with the minimalist plate steel facades at the Soulages Museum, to Dubai’s serene Muraba residential towers. However, most of their work is based in Northeastern Spain. In an industry where globalism has called into question the prestige and value of thinking locally, the homegrown approach was refreshing to the Pritzker Prize jurors.

“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. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both,” states the jury citation.

Buildings constructed into their environments

RCR’s local work, ranging from residences to parks to restaurants to wineries, share the common aesthetic of letting the buildings nearly sink into their environments. The most common material used throughout their work is Corten steel, whose rusted appearance creates an understated and weathered contrast to the natural settings of many of the buildings.

The Bell-lloc Winery in Palamos is carved into the hillside and looks less like a destination and more like a James Bond villain’s hideout. Alongside the Les Cols Restaurant in Olot, RCR designed a banquet space that disappears into the terrain, uniting the dining area with the outdoor greenery and implementing a catenary roof that creates the illusion of al fresco dining.

The theme of submitting to nature is also expressed residentially with the Rural House in La Vall de Bianya, whose spartan living quarters built into a green embankment look onto a water pool that echoes the ponds collecting in the distant mountains.

And there’s perhaps no better example of merging architecture with nature than Piedra Tosca Park in Les Preses, in which RCR created a steel labyrinth pathway through an unlikely natural landscape which they refer to as a “sea of rocks” washed off from the nearby Croscat volcano.

While most of RCR’s work is characterized by understated reverence for the site of the building, the firm doesn’t shy away from making bold statements. Their El Petit Comte Kindergarten stands out for its vibrant use of contrast.

Another hometown project in Olot, the 1,000 square meter school built for a class of 80 trades austere patinaed steel for brightly colored vertical tubes that resemble colored pencils, some of which rotate to add an interactive element of play. Glass walls allow natural light to flood into every room, creating an inviting learning environment.

children playing in El Petit Comte kindergarten
Vibrant contrast and color …
Photo: Hisao Suzuki
yellow architecture elements in El petit comte kindergarten
… at El Petit Comte Kindergarten.
Photo: Hisao Suzuki

Moving beyond architecture

Not content to focus solely on commissioned buildings, RCR has expanded their scope into the realms of research and education. RCR Lab A, founded in 2008, aims to serve as “an open architectural laboratory” that takes a transdisciplinary approach to design and questions whether the technological advances driving the industry actually stifle innovation.

“RCR help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world”, said the Pritzker´s jury.

A vision that the Spanish architects want to share beyond physical structures: The RCR Bunka Foundation, their educational arm, is meticulously cataloging the firm’s output for study and curating cultural events rooted in their design principles.

colourful buildings
A selection of works by RCR Arquitectes who won the Pritzker Prize.
Photo: Hisao Suzuki
Sant Antoni library
Photo: Eugeni Pons
black and white museum Soulages by Pritzker prize winners RCR
Photo: Hisao Suzuki
a row house by RCR architects
Photo: Hisao Suzuki
a living space
Photo: Hisao Suzuki
a garden-like space by RCR architects
Photo: Eugeni Pons
Les Cols restaurant by Pritzker prize winners
Photo: Hisao Suzuki