The 2017 Pritzker Prize was a surprise to many, awarded to the three founders of RCR Arquitectes, a modest Spanish firm located in the small town of Olot in Catalonia. Many people and critics shared their astonishment at the prize being awarded to three individuals for the first time since the Pritzker Prize began in 1979, including the third female winner, and at the relatively low profile of RCR Arquitectes before March 1st.
Whether this surprise was pleasant or shocking differs from critic to critic, but there nevertheless seems to be a consensus on the jury’s decision to venture further into politics and away from their traditional interest in celebrity architects. As clearly stated in the jury’s citation: “In this day and age, 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.” Are they steering the prize in the right, or wrong, direction?
“An oblique commentary on global politics” – Margaret Rhodes, Wired
Rhodes ventures into the political endeavors of the Pritzker jury from the get-go, with an article titled “Even Architecture Prizes Are Political In This Crazy World,” clearly questioning the role an architecture award should play in our world’s political sphere:
Historically, the Pritzker Prize, founded in 1979 and sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, veers away from tough issues and towards celebrity... It’s not the job of the Pritzker Prize jury to make identity politics out of the award. But right now, it’s hard not to.
Despite the jury’s obvious political agenda, Rhodes labels it an “easygoing message of openness,” which may very well be the safest choice in our contemporary society where division and destructive criticism currently seem to be increasing, much to our dismay. This may perhaps be why Rhodes identifies the 2017 Pritzker Prize as a situation where:
The jury has landed on a remarkably safe political statement, one that straddles the schism between protectionist and inclusive ideologies…It’s a much lighter declaration than choosing, say, a woman like Jeanne Gang or an Iranian practice like Admun Studio.
“A surprising choice that also seems a pointed response to globalization and the contemporary political climate” – Christopher Hawthorne, LA Times
Equally critical, but perhaps not agreeing with Rhodes on the use of terms such as “oblique” and “easygoing” is Hawthorne. One of the only big critics to focus almost entirely on the issue of countries turning into themselves and away from the world highlighted by the jury’s citation, Hawthorne compares their standpoint to that of Brexit and Trump supporters and draws parallels to “punitive nationalism and outright xenophobia,” in contrast to “an interest in protecting local and cultural heritage”:
[The end of the citation] 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.
Hawthorne also addresses the jury’s step away from the usual process of recognizing an already well-known name—this time not in context to the current situation of Western politics, but instead to the history of the prize itself. He points out the award’s potential to shape the structure of the architectural discipline, for better or for worse:
One striking irony of the Pritzker jury’s newfound interest in taking a stand against the damaging effects of globalization is that the prize has often celebrated the work of celebrity architects with pricey, high profile projects on several continents... Now the pendulum has swung hard back in the other direction. The Pritzker jury is looking for architecture—both to encourage a new set of priorities in the profession and, apparently, to send a distinctly political message—that digs deep into native soil.
“RIP, starchitecture. And good riddance.” – Diana Budds, FastCo. Design
Budds, like both Hawthorne and Rhodes, instantly dives into the apparently redirected priorities of this year’s jury, but with a tone of bold celebration. She calls the decision “emblematic of evolving dynamics in the profession, and the priorities of architecture’s gatekeepers,” clearly championing the discipline’s hopeful movement in the right direction:
It's the exact opposite of bombastic artistic signatures and the "starchitecture" marketing machines that characterize many of the past decade's high-profile new buildings. Nuance, collaboration, and specificity are becoming more important than a stroke of a singular genius or creating an iconic image.
Budds appears to be seeking more responsibility and integrity within the architectural world, relieved to finally be presented with architects who can lead a path for us to discuss, critique, and ultimately follow:
Taken alongside their recent Pritzker-winning peers, RCR illuminates a path forward for an industry struggling with identity and communication. Think locally, work for those who aren't normally privileged to capital-a Architecture, and design with sensitivity.
“The architecture they have collectively created in the years since they founded their practice in 1988 is some of the most ethereal, exquisite and, yes, beautiful architecture of modern times.” – Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times (UK)
Taking time to critique RCR Arquitectes’ architecture, as opposed to just their political connotations, Heathcote praises their collection of work for standing out amongst a profession overcrowded with people whose primary aims are to become the next Zaha Hadid:
The three architects have been recognised for a body of work that is almost the diametric opposite of the 'starchitect' extravagances that the Pritzker used to champion. Their work is largely local, it is not particularly showy, and it exudes respect for place, history, material and people. They practice under the unremarkable name of RCR Arquitectes and they have, so far, largely eschewed the global circuit of high-profile commissions.
Also predicting how the unexpected award may influence the (until now) low-key architecture firm, Heathcote seems confident in their good character. His judgment is backed up by Ramon Vilalta’s own comment in an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, in which he said, “What can this prize give us? I’d like to be able to do less projects, but with more intensity.” As Heathcote points out:
The temptation on winning the Pritzker must be to go global but some recent winners, such as Wang Shu in China and Eduardo Souto de Moura in Portugal, have managed also to retain a distinctive regional identity. Given their deeply ingrained sense of place, perhaps Aranda, Pigem and Vilalta will not be too distracted and can continue developing an oeuvre that has made Catalonia a place in which architecture is used to deepen social bonds and to make small towns work as places of encounter, variety and a rich public life.
“This is how architecture is really practiced so, thank you.” – Alexandra Lange, Curbed
Lange raises the fact that this year's prize sees just the third female winner in the Pritzker Prize's 38-year history, represented in this trio by Carme Pigem. Lange, like Heathcote, reflects on the effect of the prize on an architect’s career:
Prizes should be given to make a difference in people’s careers, not to help the rich (in praise and wealth) get richer. It doesn’t sound like RCR Arquitectes wants or needs help, this is instead a positive affirmation of some old-fashioned architectural values.
In accordance with several other critics, Lange comments on the unusual choice made by the jury, regarding its list of previous winners, but makes a point to highlight the jury’s disinterest in “crowning” an already world-famous figure, especially when a firm like RCR Arquitectes has remained under the radar for so long:
In a year when the reflexive answer to who might win the Pritzker seemed to be David Adjaye or Bjarke Ingels, the architects who generated the most press, on the most continents, choosing a firm better known within the profession indicates a desire by the prize-givers to surprise rather than to crown.
However, Lange also reflects on the dynamic state of our modern world, where opinions and trends change every day. Not even the Pritzker Prize is exempt from that:
My eye was immediately drawn to their El Petit Comte Kindergarten, with its almost Japanese profile, central courtyard, and rainbow columns. Rarely has the desire to say 'children play here' with many colors looked so elegant. Is that enough? This year, when that operation has been repeated over a multi-decade career, the Pritzker says yes. Who knows what message the jury will send in 2018?