Plunging Into Reality: a Yourney to the Essence of Things

architects RCR - Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, Ramón Vilalta
interviewed by Lovorka Prpić

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RCR: Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta work together like a trio in music – sharing their joint creativity. They did not leave their native region, the city of Olot in Girona province, in the northern part of Catalonia, until the period of their studies in Barcelona. The volcanic landscape under the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees is the background to and constant point of departure for their work, which has an ongoing dialogue with nature. This landscape, with its gentle flow of time and its quietness, has crucially determined their creative process. Always starting off from the site, with their austere method of rationalisation and reduction, constantly in search of the essence in every project, they arrive at a space of clarity ruled by light and transparency. From the little world of Girona, RCR has already moved out into that greater that surrounds them, and in the years to come we are bound to hear more of them.


ORIS: You live and work where your roots are. How do these roots (your habitat, cultural heritage and the traditional architecture) affect your work?


RCR: Every creative work is related to individual temperament and character, and – ultimately – to one’s personality. The shaping of human behaviour partly depends on the cultural environment. Let us quote José Antonio Marina1, a Spanish writer we admire so much: “It takes a whole tribe to raise a child.

If we agree that humans are creatures of climate, then we can say that we are part of a wider Mediterranean area and, more specifically, of the volcanic setting. Here the planetary forces are more evident, and the humanised landscape reflects a balanced osmosis between people and the earth.

To use the words of a Catalan poet Joan Teixidor2, “…it is an intimate, secluded landscape, intricate with detail, easy to capture between groves and hills. It has a certain quality of an interior, of a well kept household. At every corner it surprises us with a new niche where grass turns into a carpet, fog into a curtain, branches into ornament…


ORIS: Does origin condition differences in architectural approach?


RCR: Origins always condition. To what degree, this depends on where life takes you.


ORIS: What do you think about the current practice of architects to work all over the world?


RCR: Working all over the world does not mean being a better architect; at best, perhaps, a better travelling architect. This kind of practice may have a larger audience, but true professional prestige is gained only by genuine skill.


ORIS: And what about you, are you ready for such architectural expansion? Is it really possible to work elsewhere, without yielding to shallowness and arbitrariness?


RCR: The fact that we start with ourselves, that we are close to our roots, allows us to feed on the outside events. Depending on how much of this external input can be assimilated, we can expand our gamut and scope, because time – or more precisely, our awareness of time during this timeless journey – holds a strongly personal value.


ORIS: Can architectural exchange add to its value (like, for example, culinary exchange can)? How has your stay in Japan in 1989 influenced your work?


RCR: Cultural exchange is always enriching and positive if properly distilled. We were captivated by the Japanese sensibility, founded in their striving for the utmost perfection, and we sought to learn as much as possible from it.


ORIS: How do you define identity?


RCR: As the personality of things; what they appear to be and what they are in reality.


ORIS: Place has a strong influence on your work. You go into depths, so that you can activate its full potential. Would you care to explain how you get into the reality of a place, by which mechanisms?


RCR: You get into the reality of a place precisely by paying attention to it. The reality of a place is presented on several distinct planes: the first is objective/physical reality, with its closer and more distant manifestations; the second is human/cultural reality, manifested in the context; the third is a subjective/oneiric reality, with its motivating capacity in both positive and negative sense.

Earth is an organism with a life of its own; its surface is crossed by many subtle currents, material and immaterial alike, which determine the quality of distinct places. We breathe their vibrant essence, which is transmitted so that it can be perceived, apprehended and, finally, abstracted.


ORIS: Your Athletic Track or Bathing Pavilion are so fully embedded in an environment that you can hardly speak of them as projects in landscape, but rather as of genuine interpolations into a landscape. Using abstraction – the process of purifying a relationship to reach its essence – tree verticals have become even more erect and obvious than before, reinforcing the pronounced horizontality of your architecture. The result is, therefore, perception that is keener. In these terms, would you care to explain the tense equilibrium that you try to achieve when dealing with the architectural concept of position?


RCR: Tense equilibrium is a balance between two forces that are equal but of quite different character. A scale will not balance if you put both weights on one side. Balance is achieved only if weights are distributed on opposite sides, even though their lengths and volumes may seem unbalanced.

Place and architecture follow this pattern; once the balance is struck, the scale balance is more appropriate than the pendulum balance.


ORIS: Australian architect Glenn Murcutt likes to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson3 from his essay on self-reliance: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men that is genius. Speak your interior convictions, and it shall become the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost…

How can it be that your architectural language is legible so far away from Girona, where you work most of the time? Is it because you’re still after the essence of things, after the fundamental truth which people recognise at some deeper, subconscious level, regardless of cultural differences? Even if perception is individual, sensations are mostly common. As we reach deeper inside, these sensations get more universal and genuinely human, don’t you agree?


RCR: Absolutely. A journey to one’s own inner being is always the most surprising and revealing. Moreover, it gets across to other people a certain authenticity of one’s actions. It is this genuine quality with which others can identify and which makes people take sides, provoking polarities, as opposed to generalisations advocated by others.


ORIS: In The White Diamond, Werner Herzog’s4 documentary shot at the magnificent Potaro Waterfalls in the rainforests of Guyana, a local Rastafarian indulges in watching a waterfall through a drop of water. When Herzog poses an unusually banal question to him, the wise Rastafarian flatly replies, “I cannot hear you for you are shouting so loud,” effectively brushing off the director.

When you refer to a non-place, you use a similar expression; you say that it shouts. In contrast, your architecture brings an irresistible sense of timeless silence. Is the secret of universality embedded in this silence, enshrouding an untold truth – silence as a universal language?


RCR: This film metaphor is irresistibly beautiful. We don’t know if the secret of universality is hidden in silence. What is certain though, is that changes occurring in deep space – as consequences of explosions, collisions, absorption of matter – emit waves which we tend to interpret as sound. We don’t know if universality can be achieved with a universe which knows no motion or collision, that is, in infinite silence.

What we do know is that in all human fields, music in particular, silence has an equal value as sound.


ORIS: I can’t help noticing that, unlike the universal language of your architecture, your use of verbal language is very singular. Some words you use have a specific meaning, as if you have developed a kind of coded language – a verbal manifestation of your own architectural approach. To penetrate into this language, other people have to make an additional effort. What you ask from others seems to correspond to the endeavour you put in your architecture; taking a distance from everyday consumerist superficiality in an attempt to deepen our knowledge, would you agree?


RCR: Working in a team often calls for a specific jargon, for communication to be simple and economical (sometimes even non-verbal). This is why it is more likely that we are simply too relaxed with our verbal expression than that we expect others to make an extra effort to understand our jargon.

We are neither writers nor orators; in fact, we understand that architecture can be truly apprehended through personal perceptive experience of the work itself, rather than through theoretical estimations offered by the author. In these terms, it seems much more appropriate and more interesting to leave it up to critics to offer their theoretical estimations.


ORIS: You have an unusual dual quality as architects: the sensibility for creating a particular atmosphere and, at the same time, the precision for materialising a design. This is, in other words, a rare blend of, at the same time, sense for abstraction and for materialization – a talent scarce among authors or teams of authors.


RCR: Materialising projects preoccupies us as long as it is an inherent part of architecture. Ideas are like smoke that floats around or is captured to form a sorbet (the famous smoke sorbet made by the Catalan chef Ferran Adrià5). Capturing smoke in form of a sorbet means finding an adequate structure to materialise abstract concepts that would otherwise vanish.


ORIS: You say that experience cannot be transferred. How can one teach architecture then (considering the fact that you have some experience in teaching)? Perceiving art is primarily intuitive; would this be the reason for you to prefer teaching methods in which academic knowledge gives way to perceptual knowledge? How do you make students self-confident; how do you help them find their own expression in the dominion of superficial images and ideas?


RCR: Students need to learn to think, draw conclusions and make decisions for themselves. The subject is of little importance here, be it architecture or something else. Basic knowledge is imparted by encouraging a kind of restlessness and active perseverance, whereas deeper knowledge comes with training the capacity to discern, systematically escaping routine along the way.

Finding our true selves takes much longer; it takes years of commitment and accumulating knowledge to really begin to learn, investigate and practice a subject of our interest. This is how we acquire the capacity to perform flexible and quick mental operations, similarly to some skilful gymnast.


ORIS: You speak of shared creativity, referring to your way of working that improves the quality of the final product. What do you mean by that in practice? Is this related to your view that things always happen in between, and that 3 is therefore better than 1?


RCR: Seeing that an “I” blown out of proportion can lead to insanity, a shared “I” restores our balance. It is indisputable that a stable structure rests on three points.


ORIS: How was your work affected by the fact that you had never worked for another architecture office before you founded one of your own? There is a tendency in young architects today to go independent as soon as possible. Do you find this trend positive?


RCR: We are not sure that you can generally call it positive. In our case this meant working very intensely and being very isolated in order to set up our own, genuine and perhaps somewhat naïve platform.


ORIS: If shared creativity is the way you approach work, what would then be your designing method? Can you tell us how it all starts; can you describe its beginning and its course?


RCR: The first thoughts are always triggered by establishing a relationship between two disparate concepts, that of place and that of function. We seek to capture the atmosphere, operating somewhere between reason and impulses.


ORIS: Your work is often characterised by perforated volumes and the capture of landscapes in an architectural frame. You claim that it is extremely important to preserve the presence of air; that it should flow freely through and around a building. This reminds me of Michelangelo who was, according to his own conviction, liberating his sculptures out of stone, by simply removing excess substance.

In these terms, can you please explain your concept of void? To what extent does it help your architecture to merge with nature so astonishingly?


RCR: We sincerely believe in Michelangelo’s words. What he means by liberating a sculpture is that it is already there; you just need to make it visible. Likewise, void in our architecture is to say that air and space are already there; they just need to be shown. Stone should be liberated, air should be framed.

The universe is space; to define it, we need points of reference. If we want to comprehend it, we need to put it in a relation to something. And it is precisely this relation what we’re trying to give form to.


ORIS: Would you care to explain the importance of shift in perception with movement through space and with its gradations? What is the role of filters in the perception of a space?


RCR: A perception of a single person in a determined position is unique. It shifts in accordance to her or his physical and mental position. What is important is to set up a sort of a promenade to facilitate perception by stimulating the sensations of a person sheltered by the architecture.

Filters are there to accentuate depth, and with it a desire to discover space around us, but only gradually, as it should not be perceived all at once.

Let us quote Marina6 once more: “To perceive means to assimilate stimuli giving them a meaning.”


ORIS: Your work has a quality of elementary, anonymous traditional architecture, but it also has a highly abstract, sculptural – even monumental – quality, strongly reminiscent of land art. Function in your architecture seems to be given less priority or, at least, it seems to be made less obvious.

At the same time, you advocate adopting knowledge from other arts. How have you benefited from studying these arts? Is your visual quality the result of studying other arts, which – unlike architecture – are not subject to functional imperatives?


RCR: Other, function-free arts can undoubtedly teach us how to express spatial values and how to enhance them. In those arts, categories like depth, void or transparency are expressed in the first person. While searching for function, it is important not to lose sight of these categories, but rather to find their optimal manifestation through function. Function is an inherent condition of architecture, which must neither be neglected nor treated as a mechanical protagonist, but as an organic and structural spatial result.

Art should act upon our inner selves lifting us to higher levels of humanity, to paraphrase the Catalan writer Lluis Racionero7.


ORIS: In your projects you tend to minimise the variety of materials in use. You seem more interested in maximising the variety of possible manifestations of one single material. What are you trying to achieve by doing that? How does this contribute to the sensuality and integrity of your architecture?


RCR: In general, a sum of disparate materials tends to equal zero value. It is like adding positive and negative numbers; one material cancels another. In contrast, the sum of distinct registers of one single material intensifies our understanding of this material.

Let’s take apples for example; a mixture of chosen varieties may produce an agreeable and balanced taste of sweet and sour, sharp and mild, without the need for additives or colorants. What you get in the end is an expression that blends natural with refined, knowledge with practice.

It is precisely such an austere scholarly repertory that arouses sensuality which appeals to the feelings.


ORIS: Your approach to materials reminds me of Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and Peter Zumthor. They all seek to express the inner invisible properties and potentials of materials, and they all acknowledge the influence of conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. The abstract art of the last century promoted the idea that the meaning of a work of art does not lie in things themselves, but in their relationships. What is your opinion about this?


RCR: Things are never good or bad in themselves; they can only become such in relation to other things. Over the last few decades the “absolute” has given way to the “relative”. This is why things carry little importance in themselves, but rather in the relationships they establish. It is the nature of these relationships that creates new cognitive and sensory spaces.


ORIS: Speaking of Zumthor, it is quite easy to find many things in common between his and your work. Zumthor, however, insists on theme/idea as fundamental in each project, whereas you believe that idea is not the motor, but only “an ingredient in a complex combination”. Could you explain that?


RCR: However brilliant and necessary, an idea alone can take you nowhere. Architecture is the space we live in; there is a great distance to cross between the initial idea and a completed building that appeals to our senses. And in this long process, the idea is nothing but the first, and therefore important, link in a long chain.

The real goal is to connect events and emotions of a profoundly personal significance with themes and images of universal importance.


ORIS: A common piece of wisdom says that creativity is not about fantastic inventions, but about a series of discoveries. This seems to apply to you. Your work develops as a continuing process, one long and tenacious journey in research. Some themes occur repeatedly, and some are gradually transformed from project to project. In these terms, your projects are like stages of your journey, and not just arbitrary leaps; wouldn’t you agree?


RCR: You are right; it is a path on a long and intricate journey. As for creativity, with your permission we would like to quote another Catalan writer Xavier Bru de Sala8, on five basic notions of creativity:

1. knowledge of the subject

2. concomitant knowledge

3. much effort and dedication

4. risk taking sense

5. talent

What, talent comes last?”, continues Bru de Sala with a question to himself. But of course! Because, we mustn’t forget that the Muses, the great patronesses of the arts, were daughters to Mnemosyne, Memory herself.


ORIS: What is your attitude toward current trends in architecture, seeking new ways of design?


RCR: We don’t care for trends or fashion. Architecture is a long journey and if you follow a fashion, by the time you finish a building you’re already late!

There are trends in architecture today which are more focused on the process – mechanisms and strategies, methods and approach – than on the final result. They are mainly concerned with diagrammatic operations, matrices with nearly endless parameters, multiple equations that powerful computers try to solve. However, we still believe that a human can solve problems by himself, relying on a qualitative as opposed to quantitative assessment.

Design, being directly related to creation, is a complex individual sensory intervention, hard to explain.


ORIS: Your earlier work has included strong modernist volumes and controlled geometry. Recently, however, you seem to adopt greater formal freedom, and you yourself have mentioned that you want to break free from geometry. Could you explain this? Do you actually announce a shift away from abstraction and toward nature (referring to William Curtis’s classification of your architecture as “between abstraction and nature9)? Or could it be that current architecture of soft geometry has influenced your way of work?


RCR: Abstraction is not a selection that facilitates understanding; abstraction is drawing out the essence in order to intensify knowledge. The term soft geometry is intriguing if it’s about softening the concept of geometry in terms of subjection of “free” forms to “regular” forms. Each and every form can be reproduced following the rules which are not necessarily subject to the principle of right angle.

In fact, a well-known Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida10 said there was no such thing as the right angle. Instead, he put it like this:

“…Remember how Greeks discovered the right angle; – and a fine discovery at that – it was the angle between a man standing and his shadow. This is how the right angle was discovered; they called it a gnomon (an indicator). Now, we should ask ourselves if this angle was really 90 degrees, or if it came later with rational explanations? We don’t know if the angle they discovered was 90, 89 or 92 degrees; what we know is that it was an angle between the man and his shadow. In truth, this angle is live; it can take a number of varieties, spinning endlessly like a plumb line. I am more interested in considerations like these than in an ultimate definition of the right angle of 90 degrees. Therefore, if I move my body, or if I move the rigidity and estrangement of the right angle toward its slightly acute or slightly obtuse counterpart, space will respond with infinitely richer resonance.”


ORIS: I see your evolution toward a timeless tabula rasa of design, to use your own words, as a “progress backward”. This can be compared to what Mies has, in his way, already done – with plunging into the essence, with a certain closing of a circle. How can one proceed on such a journey?


RCR: Tabula rasa is a source of endless potential. Unless we are slaves to form, classifications or myths, we can turn our gaze toward the deep, toward the essence of things. Essence responds to us in a clear and evident manner. Only then can it assume its proper expression – stemming from the very essence itself or from any other knowledge the creator feeds on – eventually getting very close to Beauty.


1 José Antonio Marina (Toledo, 1939), Spanish writer and philosopher, studies human intelligence, especially the mechanisms of creativity in art, science, technology and economics. He has developed a comprehensive theory of intelligence which includes neurology as well as ethics. His recent work deals with the intelligence of organisations and political structures.

2 Joan Teixidor (Olot, 1913 – Barcelona, 1992), Catalan poet, essayist and art critic. His poetry is intimate and serene.

3 Ralph Waldo Emerson, (Boston, 1803 – Concord, 1882), great US poet. He wrote Self-reliance in 1841.

4 Werner Herzog, (Munich, 1942), German film director. He made The White Diamond documentary in 2004.

5 Ferran Adrià (L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, 1962), Catalan master of culinary art, winner of a number of international awards in creative cuisine and, according to some sources, the best chef in the world. He has been very popular in the media over the last few years.

6 See footnote 1.

7 Lluís Racionero (La Seu d’Urgell, 1940), Catalan author and essayist, BSc in machine engineering and economy, MA in urban planning and development from the University of Berkeley (USA). Often publishes articles on the counter-culture and Oriental topics, essays on a variety of forms of culture and leisure.

8 Xavier Bru de Sala (Barcelona, 1952), Catalan author, essayist and journalist. He was the managing director of the Proa publishing house, and the head of Cultural Promotion of Catalan administration.

9   RCR; Curtis, William, 2004: RCR Aranda Pigem Vilalta arquitectes : Entre la abstracción y la naturaleza = Between abstraction and nature. Editorial Gustavo Gili, SA, Barcelona.

10  Eduardo Chillida (San Sebastián - Donostia, 1924 - 2002), a great Basque sculptor of international renown.