Architecture's highest honor goes to Catalan trio

 In a surprising choice that also seems a pointed response to globalization and the contemporary political climate — last year’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in particular — three architects from the Catalonia region of Spain have been named the joint winners of the 2017 Pritzker Prize.

Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta, who founded the firm RCR Arquitectes in 1988 in their hometown of Olot, Spain, about 70 miles north of Barcelona, were hailed by the Pritzker jury for an “approach that creates buildings and places that are both local and universal at the same time.”

Their buildings, which include schools, houses and a winery in Catalonia as well as an increasing number of commissions elsewhere in Europe, are known for a close integration with the surrounding landscape and a deft combination of stone and brick with more modern materials like glass and weathered steel.

Notably, the jury citation points out, the RCR founders, who are in their mid-50s, have resisted “the call of the metropolis in favor of remaining closely connected to their roots.”

It would be difficult, reading that praise for an authentically local architecture, a design-world answer to what winemakers call “terroir,” not to understand the jury’s decision as a commentary on the ways in which globalization, accelerating rates of urbanization and the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis have devastated rural and small-town culture around the world.

Then, near the end of the citation from the nine-member jury, which this year includes former Pritzker winner Glenn Murcutt, architect Benedetta Tagliabue and the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, comes a paragraph that makes that interpretation essentially unavoidable.

“In this day and age,” it reads, “there is an important question that people all over the world are asking, and it is not just about architecture; it is about law, politics, and government as well. We live in a globalized 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.”

That last word seems a clear reference to the political backlash against globalization, political elites and cosmopolitanism that gave rise to the Brexit vote in the UK and Trump’s victory in November. The language of the citation suggests that the fear underlying those votes is not only justified but might be addressed and even tempered by a different approach to cultural production, beginning with architecture.

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