Recipient of the 2017 Pritzker Prize, RCR combines materiality and craftsmanship, blurring boundaries between the natural and the artificial
‘It is not with stone and wood, but with light and air, that I have marked my passing’ - Octavio Paz
The architecture of Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta (RCR) is based on a few central themes and core ideas that translate into a recognisable architectural language. They employ industrial materials such as slats of raw rusted Corten steel in a way that emphasises materiality while also suggesting the immaterial. Their buildings release space and activate voids, dissolving into transparent layers, and coming alive in striations of light and shadow. The projects of RCR are conceived as filters or frames which heighten the experience of the surroundings while establishing tranquil precincts of a meditative character. Like miniaturised landscapes, they compress or expand as you move from one precinct to another through invisible layers which are sensed subliminally. When reading a site, which they regard as a palimpsest of historical fragments, RCR intuits the stresses in the landscape, the edges, paths and borders, and the overlays of history. Relying on steel, glass and other modern materials, its buildings intensify the experience of light, shade, earth, rocks, trees, water, rain, mist and air. They appeal to all of the senses including touch and sound. They exist in a middle zone between architecture, sculpture and landscape design.
The buildings and landscapes of RCR are marked by a strong architectural discipline which suggests an underlying architectural order: a poetic presence or an aura of a kind. But they are anything but rigid since the space is fluid. Avoiding sensationalist imagery and iconic excess, the architects employ an evocative abstraction to explore the frontiers between the natural and the artificial. They react to existing features of the terrain and reveal new dimensions in the topography of each place, but they cannot be restricted to a local or contextual agenda. In fact they aspire to a certain universality which is anything but provincial: their inspirations include Mies van der Rohe, Richard Serra and Japanese traditional architecture, above all the Zen gardens of Kyoto. Where the use of water is concerned they have drawn upon examples as diverse as the rectangular pool of the Barcelona Pavilion (with its astonishing transformative effect upon marble, glass and chrome), the Water Temple by Tadao Ando and the Alhambra. Almost unconsciously, they have extended a Catalan modern tradition which runs back through seminal buildings and landscape projects by Miralles/Pinós, Torres/Lapeña, Carlos Ferrater, Coderch, even Jujol and Gaudí. At the core of this subterranean tradition is an obsession with transforming nature into a calligraphy of Modernism: an abstraction that is parallel to the natural world but which intensifies experience of it.
RCR is based in Olot, a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees about 70 kilometres inland from the northern Costa Brava close to the volcanic zone known as La Garrotxa. The local landscape is characterised by grassy slopes, terraces and strata of lava deposits. There are long views towards the mountains to the north. Olot is traversed by the River Fluvià which flows gradually down to the Mediterranean near the Gulf of Roses. The town is surrounded by woods of slender saplings and the landscape is marked by the collision between an abandoned agriculture of dry-stone walls and the terrain vague of rapid industrialisation. This is the chosen area of intervention of RCR which seeks to mend the landscape even while cutting into it with sharp abstract forms and repetitive rows of Corten steel blades holding back rubble and permitting the passage of air, rain and light (for example, the Pedra Tosca Park or the winery at Bell Lloc). The practice does not copy the landscape but abstracts it. In some of its projects the architect cuts into the earth while building upwards in stratifications of glass and steel so that long horizontals seem to float above the ground; in effect transforming an ancient Classical discipline – a tripartite order, of rusticated base, inhabited middle and overhanging cornice – into modern terms recalling the hovering cantilevers of Mies or de la Sota. Stratification is a recurrent theme at all scales. These horizontals establish a sense of repose but they also engage with horizontal planes of water, whether artificial ponds, basins, swimming pools or the distant horizon of the sea.
These divisions between earth and sky are explored via a language which might be lazily described as ‘minimalist’, although this term does not do justice to the distillation of ideas and experiences in the work of RCR. The bathing pavilion at Tussols just outside Olot was completed 20 years ago and was in effect a silent manifesto. Lightly curved in plan, the pavilion hovers above the ground on a plinth that is matched by the overhanging roof. The middle zone serves as a bathing station and the supports are angled in plan while the wide openings frame the vertical saplings beyond the site. Tranquil in effect, the pavilion haunts the site and is set off against the shifting surfaces of the stream. Ten years later RCR designed the covered urban space at Ripoll as a large proscenium box of steel slats, with gaps affording views to the sky and crevices through which plants could grow. This structure of lattices recalls a pre-existing theatre called La Lira on the site while framing views in both directions from town to landscape and the reverse. The steel bridge linking the structure to the opposite bank is itself incised, so that as the pedestrian crosses there are glimpses of the water sliding beneath. In both the bathing pavilion and the structure in Ripoll, architecture is used to heighten the spirit of each place and intensify the experience of water on the move.
Les cols pavilion ground floor plan and section
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Source: Hisao Suzuki
Source: Hisao Suzuki
Water is of course one of the fundamental materials of architecture; in Classical antiquity, in Islamic traditions, and even in modern architecture (for example in the work of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán). Water may be celebrated for its cooling effects, its agricultural role, its meditative aspects, its soothing sound. It may be controlled to emphasise reflection or refraction or both. It may be used in a way that emphasises joyful movement or mirrors of light for contemplation (the Alhambra combines these various modes but so do Le Nôtre’s gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles). RCR also explores the meditative aspect of still surfaces of water which reflect the sky or else hint at activities revealed in the background. The restaurant ‘Les Cols’ is entered along a promenade architecturale and, at a key point, a still surface of water drawn tight over steel rims reflects a trellis intertwined with greenery while hinting at the movements in the kitchen behind. The water in this case carries a subjacent meaning related to nourishment, anticipating the polished surfaces of glass, stainless steel and lacquered metal within the restaurant. The pavilions constructed slightly later alongside Les Cols take the themes of flotation and reflection to almost hypnotic levels, as the water tanks and baths celebrate washing as a ritual activity. Gravity and its opposite, levitation, are essential devices of architecture, and RCR reverts constantly to the theme of superstructures ‘floating’ above the ground. The third structure at Les Cols, the transparent plastic marquee for weddings and banquets, carries this theme to the extreme in its slender, bowing transparent roof supported on slung steel poles that almost suggest bamboo. The double-skin roof and vertical slots for saplings are designed to receive and dramatise shadows from trees as a living tracery and also to receive the patter of rain and the flow of water into drainage channels.
In the winery at Bell Lloc, RCR explored the idea of a procession through landscape which descends a slope before entering a realm of darkness where the barrels are stored and the wine is tasted in a latter-day grotto or cave. Again the practice resorted to one of its favourite devices, the array of steel slats leaning sideways and backwards and holding back rubble. Perhaps inspired by the railway ties of mines, these slats continue on the interior below ground. The wine-tasting chamber in this ‘structure of shadows’ (to recall the monograph title about the building) suggests RCR’s interest in the dark inner chambers of some Japanese temples and is a worthy descendant of the lower crypt space in Le Corbusier’s La Tourette. Light and air creep in through gaps and crevices in the structure which functions as a filter of a kind. The tapered skylights suggest funnels for liquid while the section supplies a metaphorical equivalent to the growth of the vines, with roots below, and branches above. The winery at Bell Lloc celebrates the very idea of growth and the fact that grapes require rain, earth and air for nourishment, and that wine relies upon a process that transforms and distils natural elements. When exploring and conceiving projects, RCR resorts to ink-wash sketches that suggest the energies of each site, even the passage of wind and the impact of rain. These abstract sketches, reminiscent of RCR’s fascination with the work of Soulages, underline the role of liquid in the very process of architectural thinking. Meanwhile its evocative computer-generated images suggest the dissolution of transparencies into thin air.
Hofheide crematorium ground floor plan and section
Source: Hisao Suzuki
Source: Hisao Suzuki
‘RCR transforms places through interventions which release the latent energies of the site, creating atmospheric spaces with heightening experiences’
Water, of course, settles as a horizontal surface and for RCR this ‘datum’ is sometimes played off against the slope of the land or against the hovering super-structure of the building. In several of the house projects it has inserted water bodies between parallel oblongs and these surfaces seem to pull the distant landscape into the interior. The covered swimming pool at Taradell lifts the water surface above the surrounding walkways so that it supplies a planar reflecting surface engaging with the landscape visible through the vertical slats of the structure. The Hofheide Crematorium at Holsbeek in Belgium (designed with Coussée and Goris) is in wetlands and approached between parallel rows of saplings which supply a natural portico of a kind. The building itself is set down in a trench slightly below the water level which is held back by a low wall. The superstructure is in this case formed from a sort of curtain of twisted vertical strips recalling the abstracted vegetation of the restaurant Les Cols. Warm brown, even rusty gold in colour, these strips reflect the light even in winter and suggest reflective metal although they are in fact made from concrete treated to appear like steel. The long horizontal profile of the building and the pervasive horizontals of landscape and water introduce a sense of calm. The visitors in mourning pass to the interior for the final parting then re-emerge in a floating landscape which assuages grief (the sensation of transformational catharsis, although not the architectural form, recalls the Enskede Crematorium by Asplund and Lewerentz). In the case of the Hofheide Crematorium, water is exploited for its soothing, spiritual and mental effect.
Horizon house ground floor plan
‘The primary aims of architecture should be to enhance human existence, to add joy and pleasure to life, and to intensify a sense of belonging’
Ultimately, RCR is interested in transforming places in country and city through interventions which release the latent energies of sites to create atmospheric spaces which heighten experience. The architects believe that one of the primary aims of architecture should be to enhance human existence, to add joy and pleasure to life, and to intensify a sense of belonging. This quest for a poetic re-foundation in landscape and the forces of nature embodies their own reaction against the rootless consumerism of a post-industrial society inundated with superficial virtual images. They hope to reveal features of the natural world through the mediation of architecture, and place modern technology at the service of this intention rather than letting it dominate. Similarly they treat the computer as an aid for realising their ideas, rather than as a substitute for invention, memory and culture. The guiding myth of RCR involves a ‘return to nature’, but a nature whose spirit – as in the best Zen gardens – is rediscovered through the framing of the natural by the artificial. A metaphysical aspiration of this sort was already present in early Modernism with its new concepts of space, its skeletal structures in steel and its large areas of plate glass. It was Mies van der Rohe who proclaimed that: ‘We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together in a higher unity’.
Lead Image: Ink-wash sketch of Les Cols pavilions
This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2017 issue on water – click here to purchase a copy