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Architecture's highest honor goes to Catalan trio, with a nod to the forces that gave rise to Brexit and Trump

In a surprising choice that also seems a pointed response to globalization and the contemporary political climate — last year’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in particular — three architects from the Catalonia region of Spain have been named the joint winners of the 2017 Pritzker Prize.

Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta, who founded the firm RCR Arquitectes in 1988 in their hometown of Olot, Spain, about 70 miles north of Barcelona, were hailed by the Pritzker jury for an “approach that creates buildings and places that are both local and universal at the same time.”

Their buildings, which include schools, houses and a winery in Catalonia as well as an increasing number of commissions elsewhere in Europe, are known for a close integration with the surrounding landscape and a deft combination of stone and brick with more modern materials like glass and weathered steel.

Notably, the jury citation points out, the RCR founders, who are in their mid-50s, have resisted “the call of the metropolis in favor of remaining closely connected to their roots.”

It would be difficult, reading that praise for an authentically local architecture, a design-world answer to what winemakers call “terroir,” not to understand the jury’s decision as a commentary on the ways in which globalization, accelerating rates of urbanization and the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis have devastated rural and small-town culture around the world.

Then, near the end of the citation from the nine-member jury, which this year includes former Pritzker winner Glenn Murcutt, architect Benedetta Tagliabue and the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, comes a paragraph that makes that interpretation essentially unavoidable.

“In this day and age,” it reads, “there is an important question that people all over the world are asking, and it is not just about architecture; it is about law, politics, and government as well. We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened.”

That last word seems a clear reference to the political backlash against globalization, political elites and cosmopolitanism that gave rise to the Brexit vote in the UK and Trump’s victory in November. The language of the citation suggests that the fear underlying those votes is not only justified but might be addressed and even tempered by a different approach to cultural production, beginning with architecture.

The work of Aranda, Pigem and Vilalta, little known in the United States, offers a model for bridging the gap between the local and global, the jury goes on to say. It suggests that we can have “our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world. And that is such a wonderfully reassuring answer, particularly if it applies in other areas of modern human life as well.”

How reassuring the rest of us find the answer — and the actions of this newly politicized Pritzker jury, with its willingness to analyze “areas of modern human life” beyond architecture — will likely depend on how much we think the voters who supported Brexit and Trump were motivated by an interest in protecting local and regional heritage rather than by a punitive nationalism or outright xenophobia. And perhaps also whether we think it’s fair to expect architecture to slow or even help reverse large-scale forces that may or may not be inexorable but are doubtless more economic, historical and demographic than cultural or aesthetic.

Certainly it must have been strange for many architects to wake up Wednesday and read that the jury for a leading prize in their profession had given a rousing endorsement to the idea of resisting “the call of the metropolis,” especially at a moment when the openness and multiculturalism that remain key hallmarks of urban life (and a magnet for creative people in all fields, including architecture) have become easy political targets.

This is the first time that the Pritzker — which honors a body of work rather than a single building and has sometimes been called architecture’s answer to the Nobel Prize — has gone to three architects at the same time. Typically there is a single laureate each year, though the prize on three occasions has gone to a pair of architects, mostly recently when Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Japan won in 2010.

Aranda, Pigem and Vilalta were truly dark-horse candidates for the prize. One architecture website prepared a list of 28 Pritzker contenders for 2017, including perennial favorites Steven Holl and David Adjaye. The RCR founders weren’t among them.

One striking irony of the Pritzker jury’s newfound interest in taking a stand against the damaging effects of globalization is that the prize has often celebrated the work of celebrity architects with pricey, high profile projects on several continents. In the years leading up to the economic crisis of 2008 it honored Zaha Hadid and Thom Mayne, among other similar figures, just as they were actively expanding their work around the world — and producing buildings that were dramatic and photogenic precisely to the degree to which they rejected the influence of regional character.

Now the pendulum has swung hard back in the other direction. The Pritzker jury is looking for architecture — both to encourage a new set of priorities in the profession and, apparently, to send a distinctly political message — that digs deep into native soil.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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