Three Spanish architects win Pritzker Prize

Three relatively unknown Spanish architects - Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vialta - on Wednesday won the prestigious Pritzker Prize for a body of work that showcases modern materials like recycled steel and plastic.

Three Spanish architects win Pritzker Prize
Photo: AFP

It was the first time that the architecture prize has been shared by three people –  all partners in RCR Arquitectes, a firm based in Spain's Catalonia region.

“Their works range from public and private spaces to cultural venues and educational institutions, and their ability to intensely relate the environment specific to each site is a testament to their process and deep
integrity,” said Tom Pritzker, chairman of the foundation that sponsors the prize.


Introducing Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta…

— Pritzker Prize (@PritzkerPrize) March 1, 2017


The choice was seen as a move away from the celebrity architects that have dominated the field in favour of a trio of professionals who have worked together for 30 years in their hometown of Olot in Catalonia.

Nestled deep in the countryside of Spain's northeast, Olot is surrounded by beech trees, marshes and volcanoes — a dramatic natural landscape that has long inspired their work.

In a globalised world, the prize announcement said, people increasingly fear “we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs”.

“Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both… our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world,” it said.

Among their most celebrated buildings are the La Lira Theatre public space in Spain and the Soulages Museum in Rodez in southwestern France.

“Their vocabulary is metal,” especially weathered Cor-Ten steel, which has been deployed at some of their best-known works, said Francis Rambert, who directs the French Architecture Institute at the Chaillot museum in Paris.

But light also plays a fundamental role in their creations, Rambert said, referring in particular to Les Cols, a restaurant in Olot where the rooms have glass walls on all sides, while still providing a sense of intimacy.

“You feel as if you are alone,” he said.

It is only the second time that the Pritzker Prize has gone to Spanish architects, and the first time that it has been shared by a trio. 

“It is a great joy and a great responsibility. We are thrilled that this year, three professionals, who work closely together in everything we do, are recognised,” Pigem said.

“Sometimes, it feels as if you have to choose between the local and the global. With us, everyone can understand that you can be closely tied to the local while being open to the world.”

Inspired by home nature

The winners' firm, RCR Arquitectes, has completed projects in Belgium, France and as far as Dubai, but the bulk of their work has been in Spain, much of it in Catalonia, a fiercely autonomous region where many want independence.

“Their works range from public and private spaces to cultural venues and educational institutions, and their ability to intensely relate the environment specific to each site is a testament to their process and deep integrity,” said Tom Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the prize.

Pigem and Vilalta, who are a couple, graduated from the Valles School of Architecture near Barcelona in 1987. They partnered with Aranda – who was also just out of university – to set up shop in Olot.

“Olot, it's our little world,” Vilalta told AFP in 2014 when the Soulages Museum was inaugurated.

Influenced by the modern Barcelona designs that burst into the limelight  during the 1992 Olympic Games, they also cite painters like Mark Rothko and Pierre Soulages, and Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida as sources of inspiration.

Japan's traditional architecture has also influenced their work.

Their buildings reflect the simplicity and colours of their region, such as the omnipresent dark steel in their work that calls to mind volcanic rocks.

The prize will be awarded to the three Spaniards in Tokyo on May 20th.

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Whatever happened to Spain’s building bonanza fails?

There's Benidorm's biggest eyesore, Seville's €86 million mushroom parasol and a handful of ghost airports with no passengers. But a decade after Spain’s building bubble burst, are these embarrassing white elephants still standing?

Whatever happened to Spain's building bonanza fails?
Benidorm's InTempo skyscraper has managed to bounce back. Photos: AFP

A decade ago, when “corrupción” and “la crisis” were buzzwords rather than “coronavirus”, Spanish society was reeling from the sheer amount of wasteful public spending across the country, epitomised most poignantly by a wide range of building fails.

Since the 90s, regional politicians had been splurging millions on unnecessary megaprojects with budgets from Spain’s central government and Europe, all without having to be accountable when the river ran dry or things went wrong.

In 2013, in the early days of The Local Spain, we ran an article on these bankrupting building fails that went viral with over a million views, after getting picked up by Menéame (the Spanish version of Reddit).

Seven years on we’ve decided to revisit these white elephants to see if the projects were ever completed or if they’ve just been standing there ever since, gathering dust.

Nou Mestalla (Valencia)

Valencia CF’s ‘new’ 54,000 seater stadium only got as far being a basic concrete skeleton, after construction work was halted in 2009.

Turns out that a €344 million budget proved a bit too much for a club which was already €547 million in debt.

Eleven years on, ‘Los Ché’ are still playing in the old Mestalla, still having financial problems and their new owner Singaporean businessman Peter Lim doesn’t seem too keen on paying the reduced price of €60 million to finish a no-frills version of the stadium.

Valencia’s city council has now given Valencia CF until May to resume construction or they’ll tear up their building licence.

Photo: Zarateman/Wikipedia

City of Culture of Galicia (Santiago de Compostela)

The cost for this overly ambitious megaproject that can be seen from space stands at €300 million, with US architect Peter Eisenman famously saying he didn't realise just how big his chef d’oeuvre would turn out to be.

Costly materials, flamboyant buildings and dwindling visitor numbers forced the Galician government to put the 15-year-old unfinished project on hold in March 2013.

And not much has changed since; it remains half-open and half-finished, without really serving a clear purpose (although in 2017 Galicia’s president decided a further €17 million would be spent to add an extra building for the City of Culture to house a university faculty.)

One visitor described it on Google as “Definitely a must visit for those interested in architecture and what happens when dreams and ambitions collide with reality. Virtually impossible to photograph due to its size. Unless travelling by car it is also surprisingly hard to visit. Good carparking and facilities plus some of the best views over Santiago”.

Photo: Santiago Lopez Pastor/Flickr

Metropol Parasol (Seville)

The creators of these impressive mushroom-shaped parasols, situated in the old quarter of the Andalusian capital, claim it is the biggest wooden structure in the world.

It took six years to complete and was €36 million over budget (€86 million total).

But Incarnation's mushrooms (Las Setas de la Encarnación), as this shade-giving structure is popularly known, has required constant upkeep ever since, as Seville’s extreme temperature changes lead the wood to contract and dilate, in turn causing the nuts and bolts to loosen. Yikes!

Photo: Monezimone/Pixabay

Ciudad Real airport

Ciudad Real’s is one of several airports across Spain that didn’t really, well, take off.

It cost a billion to build but was sold at auction for a tenth of the price in 2013. Before this it had been operational for three years but not generated anywhere near the 2.5 million annual passengers it promised.

In 2019 it reopened and welcomed its first plane in years…an empty one.

The latest news is that it’s being used as a parking lot for grounded planes. Believe it or not there are plans to expand the airport further, presumably to fit in more idle jets.

Photo: AFP

InTempo skyscraper (Benidorm)

If there’s a white elephant on this list that’s managed to turn things around, it’s this 52-storey skyscraper in tourist hotspot Benidorm.

It’s been plagued by accidents, hold ups and financial problems since the project began in 2005, with rumours at one point that it was missing an elevator shaft (they turned out to be false).

However, after being rescued by Spain’s bad bank Sareb for €67 million and bought by a new owner which has completely refurbished the 193-metre skyscraper, flats in Europe’s tallest residential building are now being sold for up to €1 million.

Creative Arts Centre (Alcorcón)

Back in 2008, the mayor of this dormitory town on the outskirts of Madrid thought it best to fight the imminent crisis with the building of a Guggenheim-style cultural centre for its 165,000 residents.

Twelve years on, CREAA (Centro de Artes de Alcorcón) is only 69 percent complete and 40 percent over budget.

Critics appropriately named it “Alcorcon's circus”, as the project actually includes a “circo” in honour of the then mayor's father, a professional clown.

Alcorcón's city hall is now looking for a buyer willing to pay the extra €40 million towards the €100 million that CREAA has already cost.

Photo: Zarateman/Wikipedia

Line 9 of Barcelona's Metro

The most expensive building project in Catalan history at an astronomical €16 billion (projected) has more metro stations open to the public than it did in 2013 – 24 compared to 11 – but is still not completed after 17 years of work.

Needless to say it’s been marred by delays, building problems and hundreds of complaints from Barcelona residents who have grown tired of the lingering construction work.

The forecast is that it could take another 24 years for its 47-kilometre-long track to be fully operational, which, if no other city beats Barcelona to it, will make it the longest automatic metro line in Europe.

Photo: Agm/Wikipedia

City of Arts and Sciences (Valencia)

It was perhaps unfair to feature Valencia's top tourist spot on this list, but at the time many locals were still up in arms about the final cost of €1 billion (more than three times over the original budget) for this unearthly megaproject by Spanish super-architect Santiago Calatrava.

“It is true that the City of Arts and Sciences has received local critics, mainly promoted a local political party stating that the project costed much more than originally planned but it has to be noted that the final project built included more elements commissioned by the local government and was therefore not comparable with the original design,” an explanation given to The Local by email from the office of Santiago Calatrava LLC in Zurich.

But the la Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias complex that proved hugely controversial at the time has become a well-loved landmark and one of the most visited tourist sites in Spain. It now generates about €130 million a year and supports around 3,500 local jobs.

It's certainly a sight to behold, but boy was it expensive.

Photo: Papagnoc/Pixabay