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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Building in harmony

May 29, 2017

The 2017 Pritzker Architecture Prize was awarded in Tokyo on May 20th. It is often called the Nobel of architecture. This year it went to a trio of architects from a small town in Catalonia, Spain.

The jury selected their work for its connection to the environment and its respect of cultural values. The trio says Japan has long been a source of inspiration for them.

This time they came not only to attend the award ceremony but to set out on a journey to deepen their understanding of Japanese culture.

It has been 28 years since Japan hosted the international Prize ceremony. This time, the Emperor and Empress were in attendance.

The three architects, from RCR Arquitectes, were honored with this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize. The Jury said that they succeeded in making their works global while placing the local environment and values above all.

"We know that the best decision of our lives has been to share architecture together," said Carme Pigem of RCR Arquitectes at the award ceremony. "Our second best decision was to do this from our hometown, Olot."

This year's winners focus on familiar things. A small local winery integrated with the landscape and partially set underground. Another is a restaurant that opens to the sky.

Their works are characterized by harmonizing the local environment with recycled materials like steel and plastic.

The architects are based in the town of Olot, in northern Spain, near the Pyrenees Mountains. They were born and raised there.

They would never have considered any other city when they decided to open a studio together after graduating from architecture school. For them, the most important point in architecture is the relationship between a building and the site on which it stands. They used large panels of glass to connect with the environment.

"It is a nice space because you don't know if you are inside or outside," says Pigem.

Another one of their projects in Olot is an athletic track that seemingly slips into nature.

To let people feel the site's atmosphere while exercising, they kept native trees and topographic features.

"You have a real landscape in the field. You discover while you are running around the track," Pigem explains.

For the architects, Japan has been a major source of inspiration. Their first encounter with the country nearly 30 years ago had a deep impact on them. They took photos that helped them finding inspiration for their work.

"The experiences gained in Japan, a completely different culture, helped us realize many things about ourselves," says Ramon Vilalta of RCR Arquitectes. "And that realization helped us to rediscover and confirm our own roots. At the same time, we were discovering for ourselves other ways of expressing how we felt deep within our hearts."

This time they came to Japan with the desire to go deeper. They wanted to know more about the origin of Japanese architecture. So they decided to spend time at an important source.

"We were in the woods walking, feeling the vertical patterns, the density, the different areas to harvest different types of wood," says Rafael Aranda of RCR Arquitectes. "We wanted to learn everything about paper making from those involved in the trade, to understand what the woods provide for us."

As they delved into the roots of Japanese culture, they felt they reached a place where universal values connect all cultures.

"When things are profound, and when it comes from the origin, the source, what is essential," Pigem says. "These are things everyone can understand. They have the capacity to communicate on a global level."

A day before leaving, the three architects wanted to pass on a message to some university students.

"We can always gain an understanding of the essence of things by reflecting on our origins," Vilalta said during a lecture at the University of Tokyo. "And that recognition helps us understand other places and cultures. And that, I would say, is our motivation."

When awarding the prize, the Pritzker jury commented on a growing fear of losing local values in a globalized world. The architects' work tells us it is possible to build in harmony through the merits of both.


NHK World's Tetsutaro Soe went to Spain to see some of the team's buildings. He joined Newsroom Tokyo anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio to talk about the works. Watch the video for their discussion.