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Dreaming reality

An interview with Rafael Aranda
Rafael Aranda of Spanish firm RCR Arquitectes - the 2017 laureates of the coveted Pritzker Prize – highlights the importance of collaborative thinking and designing.

by Meghna Mehta Jul 12, 2019

Architect Rafael Aranda delves into the approaches of the 30-year-old practice and the vigour of shared creativity that continually inspired them to do things their way, now recognised by the world. He shares his own induction into the world of design and talks about the significance of processes and endowing architecture with a ‘soul’.

Meghna Mehta (MM): How were you initiated into the field of architecture and design?

Rafael Aranda (RA): In my case, my father was a mason and I had seen him constructing small buildings. Seeing my father, I always felt I would also end up building myself. I even got involved personally working during the summer breaks with him, where I saw the beauty of construction and of building with my own hands. In the initial stages, my first involvement with architecture was directly linked to construction, hence my later attempts were to detach myself from construction and develop a thorough conceptual approach towards architecture.

MM: Could you tell us how RCR Arquitectes approaches its projects, addressing a particular site or its context?

RA: For RCR, architecture has always been about learning and having the ability to see. It includes going to a place, understanding it and trying to deliver what the place needs. It is important for us to be able to read the programme and to deliver the response that specific location demands. This particular way of comprehending the site is not a very scientific or abstract method, but a personal reading that we derive individually for each specific project.

  • Barberi Laboratory 2008 Olot, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Barberi Laboratory 2008 Olot, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Pep Sau, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • Barberi Laboratory 2008 Olot, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Barberi Laboratory 2008 Olot, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • Barberi Laboratory 2008 Olot, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Barberi Laboratory 2008 Olot, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

MM: What is the process adopted by the firm after the context is understood?

RA: Once we have explicitly understood the context, we go forward to understanding the concepts - the concepts for the projects and the concepts for the people who are going to be experiencing the project. After the concepts are formulated with a final objective in mind, we prioritise spiritualising the project. We believe the project needs to have a soul; it needs to have a beauty, a calm and serenity. The ‘soul’ is something we consider extremely important in the architecture that we deliver.

MM: Light seems to play a vital role in ‘spiritualising’ the spaces that you design. Does it count significantly in the process?

RA: It depends on the space and situation; however, light attempts to reinforce the relation of every space with its concepts. Light is the ‘clue’ material to achieve any kind of ambience, while darkness offers you another perception of the space. I believe a designer must use light the same way as the sunlight falls on buildings - in a continuous play between the filters, reflections and itself.

  • El Petit Comte Kindergarten 2010, Besalu, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    El Petit Comte Kindergarten 2010, Besalu, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • Les Cols Restaurant Marquee 2011, Olot, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Les Cols Restaurant Marquee 2011, Olot, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • Les Cols Restaurant Marquee 2011, Olot, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Les Cols Restaurant Marquee 2011, Olot, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

MM: How do you think spaces should respond to natural daylight and night light in the cities we live in?

RA: The role that lighting must play in the life of a city is to help people in the night. However, it must avoid making people feel that night is the same as the day. In our architecture, we do not want spaces to be identified by day or by night. It would be better to have two different feelings from the ‘same’ space. We try to be conscious about the importance of experiencing daily and seasonal evolution of natural light. The worst illuminated places one can visit would be the ones that are asking you to wear sunglasses.

MM: Is there any one project that is exceptionally close to your heart and the practice?

RA: For us, every single project that we have done throughout our history has become a crucial point of interest in our trajectory. We all believe that each project becomes a milestone in our path. Our main achievement, we believe, is our ‘shared creativity’. It started with three partners that have now expanded to a big team over the last 30 years and that has made us what we are. It has been more about creating together than a creation by a sole person. This ‘shared creativity’ has led to a way of conceiving projects in which at first we generate the concepts, then the forms, materials and finishes come along. However, it is always the concept first which leads the rest. In each project, we try to deliver a single response to the challenge with a common denominator and try to tackle each project individually with a new approach.

  • Soulages Museum 2014 Rodez, France | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Soulages Museum 2014 Rodez, France Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • Soulages Museum 2014 Rodez, France | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Soulages Museum 2014 Rodez, France Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • Soulages Museum 2014 Rodez, France | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Soulages Museum 2014 Rodez, France Image Credit: : Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • Bell-Lloc Winery 2007, Palamos, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Bell-Lloc Winery 2007, Palamos, Girona, Spain Image Credit: : Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

MM: How would you describe bringing context to your buildings, while existing in a global world?

RA: The moment you filter and understand the programme and the location, it is then when you are able to provide a very personal response to those initial inputs. This is an architecture that from a personal perspective delivers something to the world, and thus becomes more global in that sense. It is possible that the fact that we started our office in Girona, Spain, is what allowed us to have direct contact with nature and landscape. That influence has perhaps enabled us to respond to any other context in the world; having the approach that we have had locally and applying it to each location where we work.

  • San Antoni- Joan Oliver Library, Senior citizens centre and Candida Perez gardens 2007 Barcelona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    San Antoni- Joan Oliver Library, Senior citizens centre and Candida Perez gardens 2007 Barcelona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • San Antoni- Joan Oliver Library, Senior citizens centre and Candida Perez gardens 2007 Barcelona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    San Antoni- Joan Oliver Library, Senior citizens centre and Candida Perez gardens 2007 Barcelona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • San Antoni- Joan Oliver Library, Senior citizens centre and Candida Perez gardens 2007 Barcelona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    San Antoni- Joan Oliver Library, Senior citizens centre and Candida Perez gardens 2007 Barcelona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

MM: Would you categorise your work under any particular style?

RA: Despite the fact that critics try to categorise, we have always avoided to set ourselves in any particular style. We try to convey the ‘soul’ in every project, leaving feeling and emotions for the users to experience within the architecture we create. Our objective and goal are to accomplish people’s feeling when they enter the spaces. Now, whether this is a style or not, I leave it to whomsoever it concerns. We personally do not consider that to be a style since we try to move away from trends and fashion. Our intention is to build an architecture that is out of its time, that could be set in any context throughout history and still be valid. We base this on proportions, beauty, the coherence of materials and the generation of space. We avoid entitling our architecture from being eco-friendly or sustainable since we do not think those are compliments to the architecture which tries to build an emotional connect. Our attempt is to go to the essence of what we believe is architecture and accordingly deliver.

  • Row House 2012, Olot, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Row House 2012, Olot, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • Row House 2012, Olot, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    Row House 2012, Olot, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

MM: After winning the Pritzker Prize for 2017, the firm has received much criticism, as well as acclaim. What has your response been to both reactions?

RA: What has been very pleasantly surprising is that everyone around us, people who know our work or us, has been sincerely happy about our practice winning the prize. Being an award of such recognition and importance, the fact that it was conferred to a studio like ours, has made others react very positively. They now feel it is closer to them than ever before, not limited only to a star or a famous architect.

They’ve (RCR Arquitectes) demonstrated that unity of a material can lend such incredible strength and simplicity to a building. The collaboration of these three architects produces uncompromising architecture of a poetic level, representing timeless work that reflects great respect for the past while projecting clarity that is of the present and the future. – Glenn Murcutt, Jury chair,
The Pritzker Architecture Prize, 2017

Thirty years ago when RCR decided to establish its office in such a small place, it was a personal challenge as well as a risk; however, it was a solid decision. Now, with the prize and recognition, we feel that has delivered belief - belief to young people that they can go and follow their path in their own way and still make it possible. In our case, we went to a small village and started practising architecture in a manner that we wanted to practice and in a way that we felt it needed to be done. The world has given recognition to that, which makes us happy and fills us with joy because we feel that anything is possible. This idea can be very exciting for young people who are pursuing their projects and their dreams. It is very important to help to dream and to dream yourself.

  • La Lira Theatre Public Open Space 2011 Ripoll, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    La Lira Theatre Public Open Space 2011 Ripoll, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • La Lira Theatre Public Open Space 2011 Ripoll, Girona, Spain | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    La Lira Theatre Public Open Space 2011 Ripoll, Girona, Spain Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • La Cuisine Arts Centre 2014 Negrepelisse, France | RCR Arquitectes | Rafael Aranda | STIR
    La Cuisine Arts Centre 2014 Negrepelisse, France Image Credit: Hisao Suzuki, Courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

MM: Do you think the Pritzker Prize Jurors are justified in moving away from nominating only well-known architects and instead exploring the works of the many other equally credible designers?

RA: We feel that the Pritzker family, with the 2017-year award, followed a particular trend of thought; and this will help the world to prove that with all the changes there are, you can go forward and act differently to achieve objectives.

Firstly, they are valuing our ‘shared creativity’, since it makes no sense to give value to one person; we are not in this in the spirit of the time. Secondly, they are not only valuing the outcome of good architecture, but also the process and how to achieve that architecture. We feel they have also valued the way we have approached not only our job as architects but also our job on sharing architecture.

It is almost 10 years since students started coming to us in the summer time from all over the world. They come to learn not only architecture but to learn the way we see the world. We have a feeling that 2017 year’s results at the Pritzker follow the idea that it is not only a person, it is not only architecture, but it is a way of doing things, a way of leading a path, a way of making dreams come true; dreams that can become a reality.

MM: What are your views of India and the architectural scenario of the country?

RA: Being our first time in India, and surely not the last, there is always a willingness to visit because there is definitely a lot to see. Apart from BV Doshi’s or Le Corbusier’s or Louis Kahn’s architecture, there is an architecture here that we are more attracted to; the local architecture. It has no author – this is the real vernacular architecture of the different areas and regions of India, which we hope to be able to come and visit sometime soon.

(This article was first published in Issue #15 of mondo*arc india journal – an initiative by STIR)

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About Author

Meghna Mehta

Meghna Mehta

An architect by education and a journalist by passion, Mehta pursued a crossroad between her two interests. Having completed an M.Arch from CEPT University in Ahmedabad, she has worked in the field of architectural journalism for over 5 years. Besides content generation for STIR, she continues to teach in architectural schools in Mumbai.

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