I am fortunate to have seen numerous beautiful buildings and spaces, so when I recently went to Olot near Girona, Spain, to explore the works of 2017 Pritzker Prize Laureates, RCR Arquitectes, I thought I was all prepared. But even though I was familiar with their works through publications, what I encountered firsthand, moved me in the most surprising and delightful ways. The sheer ingenuity and brilliance of these structures, so integral to their places and consequential of their given programs, empower architecture and yield sensations that are truly special and unforgettable.
Catalan architects, Carme Pigem (b. 1962), her husband Ramon Vilalta (b. 1960), and Rafael Aranda (b. 1961) grew up in Olot, Catalonia, Spain. All three studied at Vallés School of Architecture, ETSAV, outside Barcelona. They all graduated the same year, in 1987: classmates Ramon and Rafael in January, and Carmen – the next semester, in November. As a teenager, Rafael spent his summers helping his father building houses; the other partners’ families were unrelated to architecture. Still, there was an urge to start practicing right after graduation, initially at Ramon’s house. In March 1988 the partners rented an apartment for their studio. They count their start from that date. The first project was an addition to a house for a family friend. After producing countless design and working drawings the trio realized that it was not the kind of project they were envisioning doing. So, they decided to take a break from practice and enter a competition. They won it in 1988 but their project for Punta Aldea Lighthouse in Gran Canaria was not built. Since then they have been winning competitions regularly. Most of their works are in the Olot-Girona region but in the last decade, they started also to build in France, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates.
I met with Carme Pigem at the RCR Arquitectes’ studio, which occupies a former bell foundry named after the Italian Barberí family which dates back to the 15th century. We sat down at a beautiful room that the architects refer to as the Pavilion of Dreams, a glass prism, an oasis of calm that encourages reflection and deliberation. As we spoke, terra-cotta-colored leaves kept peacefully falling down on unusually long, ice-cold steel surface, seemingly floating in mid-air; it served us a table. As our nearly two-hour conversation was winding down, the daylight kept dissipating until it completely turned pitch black, to the point that we no longer could see each other’s faces, as we whispered, clapped, and laughed.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: I just came from visiting some of your projects here in Olot. There are so many inventive and unexpected ways of using unorthodox materials, and now being at your office, such a mysterious, dark place, it feels so theatrical and even magical. Could you talk about this building?
Carme Pigem: It is dark and peaceful, but this building has a variety of qualities and in some areas, it is flooded with light. This place was a foundry before. It was called Barberí foundry, known for casting bells for churches all over the world. When it closed, we saw this space and discussed the possibility of bringing our office here. At the time, we worked in an apartment. After several years of discussion, we decided to remodel this space. We moved here in 2007. We really like it. We achieved the kind of atmosphere here that stimulates our creativity as practicing architects. The room we are now in has an ambiguous relationship with outside – there are vines that rise against the existing wall, behind the new sleek steel plates that reappear above and keep climbing all the way up, forming an overhead canopy. When the time comes, like right now, we have leaves falling on us, just like in the forest. You don’t know where you are. The building is right in the center of the city, but it feels as if you were in the woods. The central space that we left largely untouched and quite raw is where cultural events, such as the city’s annual dance festival, take place. We also use it for our summer workshops.
VB: I see this space as a sort of testing ground for your ideas. Would you say this is your manifesto?
CP: Why not? [Laughs.] In any way, it explains the love we have for nature, how we treat various spaces, voids, ruins, play with nature, and with materials. The space documents some of our deepest thoughts and it elicits a stimulating environment for pushing creativity.
VB: Was it a kind of watershed project for you? Would you say it divided your work on projects before and after?
CP: No, we never had a project like that. We are continuously working on our ideas and look for opportunities to express them. We keep experimenting with different materials and how they may appear different every time. The process of our design methodology has been the same from the beginning.
VB: Is there any particular reason why you became an architect?
CP: My mother told me that when I was 12, I said I wanted to be an architect. I don’t remember that. All I know is that I wanted to do something creative because I thought that if I must work all my life it is better to be creative. [Laughs.]
VB: You and your partners started your own practice immediately following your graduation. Did you feel ready right away?
CP: I don’t know. We were so young, very unconscious, but very passionate. [Laughs.] And we didn’t want to study anymore or learn from others. We were really impatient for creating something on our own.
VB: Your work is based on working with materials hands-on, on finding your own ways, right?
CP: You can say that. At the same time, we discuss our work and process a lot. This is what makes our work very rich; it is not just my work but all three of us. We share ideas from the very beginning. We are a trio. I think this has to do a lot with Ramon. He does not like doing anything alone. He always involves all three of us. He was a friend of Rafael and he was my boyfriend, so this is how our collaboration first started.
VB: What kind of office did you want to create at the beginning? What was your vision?
CP: We didn’t know. We started with a very small project – an addition to a house for a family friend. We did so many drawings. And in the end, it was not a good experience. We did so much hard work – meeting the client, overseeing the construction. So, we said – we don’t want to do this anymore. [Laughs.] I remember when we were still at school one professor told us, “To be a good architect, when seemingly a big project comes, you have to say no.” And that’s exactly what happened. An opportunity came to design a residential building with 30 apartments. For us, it was a big deal. But we said, “No!” [Laughs.] You know, it was good advice!
VB: Was it a kind of project that you did not want to do?
CP: No, it was very tempting. And it would have been good for our business, financially. In any case, we said no, and we decided to do competitions for a while. We did a project for Punta Aldea Lighthouse in Gran Canaria that same year, in 1988, and we won! It was a very unexpected interpretation of a lighthouse as a horizontal building merging with the coastline. Well, perhaps we said “no” to the other project because we really wanted to do something very special. That was the starting point. Since then many of our projects came through competitions. We like this because it gives us freedom. You know? But even now that we have many clients, we still like doing competitions because those are the projects where you make all the decisions. They are pure.
VB: Everyone agrees that your architecture is very beautiful. You have done ordinary things extraordinarily well. Is beauty the main goal of your work? What would you say your architecture is about? How would you describe it to a lay person? What are the main intentions behind your architecture?
CP: We try to do architecture in ways that would make people feel something special. This is very important for us. We try to create a special feeling about every space. We treat spaces as artworks. We are very concerned with things that are original, sensual, personal, but also essential. We develop a language that everybody can understand. How do we achieve beautiful architecture? Well, we have many rules, they are actually written on our walls. One of these rules is that when we find that a solution is not beautiful, we must continue looking for something better. [Laughs.]
VB: It is interesting how you talk about beauty in such a straightforward way. More and more it is becoming architects’ clear objective. Beauty has become a quality that ordinary people now associate with contemporary architecture, whereas Modern architecture was not seen as beautiful. The entire 20th century the public was disenchanted with Modern architecture. It was and still is perceived as too cold, too hard, and too alienating. Such words as “pretty” or “comfort” would be thought of as vulgar. Even the highpoints of 20th-century architecture remain to be misunderstood – Villa Savoye, Kimbell Museum, Centre Pompidou, Seagram Building – these buildings need to be explained and proven that they have merits. There is nothing instinctive about Modern architecture. What a number of leading architects are doing today, including you, is universally beautiful.
CP: All I can say is that solutions must be beautiful. It is on our minds all the time. Beauty for us is in the essentiality of things.
VB: Clearly, architecture is no longer about pure forms, pure abstraction. There are layers and traces of history, nature is brought in, comfort is important, colors are back, décor and ornaments are revived, materials are more eclectic, all the severity is gone. Beauty is very seductive and very real. Could you talk more about your design process? How do you achieve these very seductive spaces?
CP: Well, for us everything starts with understanding the place. It is very important. And we try to understand what the problem is. It is not about bringing what we already know. Any project can only succeed if we come up with a reaction to the place and program. Otherwise, it will be out of place, irrelevant. For example, when we did our lighthouse, we studied the building type and precedents. The dictionary says that a lighthouse is a tower or a building that emits light to help ships navigate at sea. So, why a tower? Why a building? We question such conventions. We want to understand things and think of alternatives. Otherwise, why would there be a competition to design a lighthouse if anyone could just follow a conventional model, right? Everything we come up with must be expressed in new ways – you can clearly see what’s new and what’s old. The idea is to make it work as a whole. You establish a dialogue, make a balance. We are not trying to win or emphasize something. It is not a question of being nostalgic or romantic.
VB: Many of your buildings look like student projects. Is that how you always worked? Was that how you worked in your school days?
CP: I will take it as a compliment. We don’t want to work as professionals. That’s not how we see ourselves. Because then you become a specialist. Meaning – you know what you are doing. Then there is no surprise, no experimentation anymore. Being a good professional means you know the right way, one and only way. That’s not what we are interested in. Do you understand? We want to tackle a particular problem to discover things. That’s what gives us pleasure. We have no idea what kind of result is to expect. It is not like we know what kind of building or image we want. Then it would not give us any satisfaction. We deal with the unknown. We like the process. We are asking questions. We explore potentialities. We are not interested in an object. We are interested in creating a new kind of space, a new reality, a new atmosphere. And we are not simply creating these spaces, we are discovering them. And when you encounter our spaces you never see everything at once. Intriguing, complex spaces absorb you and when you are absorbed, even the time seems to change, it slows down. This is important because we live in such fast-paced times. We work against that. We try to slow things down.
VB: What is a good building for you?
CP: When we feel good, when space can transform us.