Even Architecture Prizes Are Political In This Crazy World

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La Lira Theatre
La Lira Theatre, Ripoll, Spain / © Suzuki Hisao
La Lira Theatre
La Lira Theatre, Ripoll, Spain / © Suzuki Hisao

In an oblique commentary on global politics, the Pritzker Prize jury just awarded architecture’s highest honor to a little-known trio of Spanish architects who carefully honor local topography and culture in their contemporary designs.

Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta are the principals at RCR Arquitectes, a small studio in Olot, a Catalonian town known for welcoming immigrants. The firm’s oeuvre is similarly provincial: Notable projects include a swooping canopy of a restaurant, a winery nestled into the earth, and a technicolor school, all in the Girona region of Spain. The trio have a taste for dark ochre-colored steel and soaring glass panels that bring the outdoors inside, at least visually. “But what sets them apart,” the jurors wrote, “is their approach that creates buildings and places that are both local and universal at the same time.”

By that, the jury means that RCR Arquitectes painstakingly considers the landscape and culture of its building sites, yet manages to create work that resonates with all visitors. “Each building can only be in the place that it is located,” says Martha Thorne, executive director of the Pritzker Prize jury. “That place involves the climate, the topography, the history, the culture, and the landscape, including the sky and the stars. Yet you don’t have to be from that place to experience it, to feel uplifted, or feel at peace, or feel emotional, or feel good.” Put differently, RCR Arquitectes stands in as a metaphor for appreciating otherness in the world.

Historically, the Pritzker Prize, founded in 1979 and sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, veers away from tough issues and towards celebrity. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture, the award honors a body of work over any singular building. That means it typically goes to high-profile designers, like Shigeru Ban, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid. Last year’s award was almost an exception. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for clever work on low-income housing, won. But fame preceded the award: he had already done the TED talk circuit and hosted the Venice Biennale. […]

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