Two days ago ArchDaily had the distinct honor to interview Ramon Vilalta, one of the three architects named as 2017 Pritzker Laureates. Vilalta gave us an exclusive insight into history behind his collaboration with Rafael Aranda and Carme Pigem and how their connection to their small hometown of Olot, Spain has influenced a career that has produced exceptional projects by their firm, RCR Arquitectes.
ArchDaily: How did your studio/practice begin? Why did you start quickly after graduating?
Ramon Vilalta: In that sense we were very disciplined people. We finished our degrees quickly and once we were finished we decided to share a studio; we chose to confront architecture by sharing it, and by really sharing it. We each have different personalities – each one has his or her own style but what comes from the chemistry between the three of us makes us special, I think. This was, I feel, a big decision that wasn’t easy at the time.
We lived in a small city [Olot, Spain] with 30,000 inhabitants, and it was very common to finish your architecture degree in Barcelona and then go back to your home town. We went back to the setting that we knew, and there we became motivated to produce good architecture. We began with competitions. It wasn’t a decision that we thought about very much, but we felt it. We went to school, we finished, and then we started to share – getting to know each other and working as a real team.
Many years ago [architecture critic] William Curtis told us that we “really work like a jazz band,” in the sense that there’s a lot of dialogue; someone talks and another reworks what the other said. It’s a composition that means you don’t know where an idea will end up, because you’re not just one individual.
AD: What do each of the three of you bring to the table?
RV: The interesting part about sharing is when you dilute yourself in the mixture. The personal part disappears. In the conversations, evaluations, things add up and in the end it’s a complex road, developed over an extended period of time. You yourself start to disappear into this group and it’s difficult to know which part you play. You are diluted but you also feel as if you belong there. So, in other words, we’re different but with the same interests. The part that really interests the three of us is the creative aspect, the world of ideas – that’s what moves us. It’s chemistry.
AD: What inspires you? What are the things that interest you within and outside of architecture?
RV: We’ve passed through stages – pretty different stages, in fact. At school you graduate and then you’re most interested in the great masters and their projects, of course. But for all that, our interests were pretty open. We discovered Japan, for example, and we felt attached to our environment; our landscape. The landscape of Olot is botanical but very leafy, which shares certain similarities with the Japanese garden.
Once you enter architecture you start marking a trail of interests rather than idols. We were interested in themes related to art, culture; things that were larger, that we find in our journey and when they ignite our passion we like to understand them. From there we take things, from a very internal point of view, and then we forge our own path.
Olot is a small city and because of that we haven’t perhaps participated in the reality offered by large-scale capital cities, for example. And sure, this takes you down a more genuine, individual path. We’ve worked on our own camino as we’ve felt it, and not by following predetermined forms of thinking or doing.
This is one thing I’ll say, and it’s important for young people: learn the wiseness of uncertainty to be certain. Our truths should be capable of existing in a world that moves very quickly and is very restless. In this context, the word “uncertainty” goes hand in hand with another, which is “complexity” – and it’s fundamental that people become enriched by this because you can’t confront uncertainty with simplicity. We always talk about the difference between the words “simple” and “easy.” A project is a really good project when it teaches a complex lesson about a particular phenomenon, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that what you do produces a complex result. It should be simple but at its core there should exist a complexity of vision.
From our point of view—and we always say this to the people who work with us—it’s most important to believe in yourself. The important thing is to work and live with great intensity. Passion and love are, for us, fundamental. The truth is in one’s own self; belief in one’s own path is key – belief that everyone has something to contribute.
AD: In terms of your projects, how do you conceive the landscape as a work of architecture?
The landscape has been one of our principal interests; I think it’s taught us a lot. The landscape is a place in itself but for us the project is the same as the urban context. We’ve learned to see it, be it urban, more or less natural or located far away, be it in a desert of leafy place. What we’ve tried to do is to understand the landscape, look and it and read it. In a given environment, we try to capture its strengths and main value. From there, we try to do architecture so that it really includes the landscape—not relate or submit to it or overpower it—but really have it be in dialogue with it. And I think that this is something that, for us, has always been vital: the location of the project and what you try to do with the energy captured in these elements. To be in dialogue with it and to create a landscape that forms in a given place with this new architecture.
Since we’ve graduated from school thirty years ago, Barcelona already had “landscape architecture,” so there was already a kind of vocation for work in the landscape. In our own experience, we knew what it was to live very closely with nature and the natural. We would leave the studio and two hundred meters away we had the end of the city and there was a natural park that was “humanized.” There were a lot of buildings but there was also a balance between the built and the natural. This is a natural, “humanized” park because the people who live there are in total harmony and I think that this, for us, was very important; we’ve been talking about it for a while. Even today we are convinced that it is interesting to try to capture that essence. It’s a lesson that you can then try to extrapolate to any place because there is an interest in listening and learning from the place in which you build.
AD: Speaking of building and construction, you use materials such as steel, glass and even the earth in its most primitive state. How do you determine which materials you will use in a project?
RV: We’ve been doing this for years and I, for example, remember that at the beginning we had a great appreciation—sorry, this is going to sound a bit exaggerated—for precision. By this I mean that things were controlled down to the centimeter. In fact, in the first drawings that we did after graduating we used even decimals! Then we saw that in a building this approach was foolish, but for us it was important nevertheless and so, when we started to build with concrete, we couldn’t control it very much. So steel gave us that level of control, in a structural way. Afterwards, as we progressed not only with materials but also in the “tacto” that we offered, it has always been important that the materials be authentic or show their authenticity.
Sometimes we have worked with materials that are more synthetic and, in the end, we’ve discarded them because we didn’t feel as though they had the energy of more natural things, like steel for example, that becomes more beautiful and develops patina over time. There is an aspect of time that, when linked the the landscape, is also important to us: that things continue to adapt to the given environment. There are things that, over time, look exactly the same. This is something that we feel, and in the end we are interested in expressing the force that the material has. In projects like the Les Cols restaurant, we discovered that we could use only one material – something that, at times, can seem very cold but we used it in a warm way. All materials have their own expression but you are capable of transporting it to other dimensions or other ways of seeing – touching it and feeling it in other ways. From the beginning this has been for us about the elemental energy that comes from materials.
AD: We’re interested in the fact that, throughout your work, the use of the tension of steel has been a key element.
RV: Yes, and we’ve also realized throughout the years that using the same material with different registers gives you on one hand homogeneity and unity, but working with the small nuances gave us different registers and richness. In the Les Cols restaurant we use steel on the floor, on the walls, one with an oxidation tint, one covered, one lacquered… In the end we agreed that in a restaurant it is primarily a place that you have to find comfortable and warm and so we used a lot of steel but, all together, and even for people who cannot appreciate the design say, “I’ve felt very good eating here.”
Another issue for us that’s been very important is the ability to create an atmosphere. It’s not so much about the design but about the spatial aspect of creating an experience that envelops you and really connects with you, beyond the forms or nuances of the material. We’ve also built a house that was totally made of steel; we’ve done things that are only glass, but with different registers; we’ve explored different materials with the desire to, above all, provide a richness to the wholeness of the project. And this can be with wood – it’s something that you can apply with other materials and we like that they can be as expressive as possible.
AD: How did you all develop an interest in developing workshops in your studio?
RV: I think it’s a question of time. We finished school and Carme and I were going to Barcelona for many years to teach at the university. But then we saw that even though it was really good to share, going to Barcelona made us feel like we really couldn’t actually share things. So we went for what drives and impassions us, which is building and making architecture. As a result, for the first ten years we had a parallel experience with the university and then, after, we opted to give everything to the creative process of architecture.
But as the years go by, you do start to think that maybe you would like to share the things that you’ve learned. When we were teaching in school we much younger than we are now, and we now feel like we really have discovered things that we can share with students. We’re primarily dedicated to making architecture and, if we do something there, it allows us to hold a workshop that is interesting to us and it helps us too to say, “this is what we’ve learned,” and to also learn something that could be of interest to us. What we didn’t know when we started was that every year sixty people from all over the world—people come from twenty to twenty-five countries—were very different. We started fully in the space, going deeper into fundamental concepts that, in the end, were capable of creating an atmosphere of architecture. Now we are working with those ideas, and we are interested and have been in contact with younger people who share the idea that they can give something to us and we will give something back to them. When we do something that we are really passionate about, it starts us down a path in which new windows and doors start opening. The projects that we’ve done contain the driving thread, but sometimes they find their own way of existing – and that opens the door to the next one. It’s a kind of evolutionary process.
AD: After these thirty years of making architecture what advice would you give to the architects who are just now entering practice?
RV: I think that we’re in a very particular moment. We feel that, more than ever, we’ve entered an unprecedented period of uncertainty. In architecture it’s true that you’re in it for the long-haul; before, when things started, you stayed on the path but there was more or less a schedule. Now things are becoming more uncertain – you start one thing and you don’t know if it will advance or not so, for young people, I would say that it is important to learn to live within a much more uncertain system than we once had. Learn the wisdom of uncertainty, for sure. Our certainties have to exist within this idea that we’re in a world which is moving so quickly.
We’re living in a world in which everything is complex and uncertain, and that can be disorienting. We are passionate about our architecture and we live it with great intensity, trying to not be distracted. In this sense, what can this prize give us? I’d like to be able to do less projects but with more intensity. We’re not interested in having this prize and doing more projects. We’re interested in doing less but with conditions that allow us to develop architecture with more intensity.
Thirty years ago it was strange that a group of young architects decided to work in a small town instead of going to work with great architects. This allows us to go back to our roots and open ourselves to a sort of thinking that we could do really interesting things from [Olot]. This recognition has to do with those roots. It’s a recognition of this context that, for us, has been very important.
By being isolated we haven’t been distracted by professional problems, such as jealousy. We have not wasted our time on criticism. From this point of view it’s been very good to be isolated. When you’re distracted, you can’t go into depth. Right now, I’m giving up my cell phone… If I pay attention to my cell phone in the middle of an idea, I’m only left with the first phase of it. It’s one thing if these instruments give you the capacity to make things easier but it’s another thing entirely if it ends up dominating you. And this is happening with technology in our own lives.
In the end, if you want to go deeper into something you have to have a certain recollection. You can’t always be exposed to continuous screaming... It's part of a life in which we are always only 5 minutes away from our house and we only use our cars to go to Barcelona.
The planets have to align for these things to happen. For us, Japan is a very special place and since the ceremony is taking place there, I’m sure that we’ll enjoy it very much!