The Search is Always Based on the Essential

interviewed by Maroje Mrduljaš, Jaume Prat Ortells

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Interviewed in Olot on 27 November 2014


RCR Arquitectes is an architectural team founded in 1987 by Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta. They live and work in the Catalan town Olot, where they are creating an authentic oeuvre and expressing their worldview. They belong to the rare architectural practices whose approach and poetics can be seen in their earliest works and consistently develop from then on. Some of the main topics of their research are the analysis of the dialectics of context and architecture, the relation of materiality and space and the concepts of borders in architecture. Their distinctive features; an exceptional sensibility for the ambience, masterful quality of the form and an uncompromising approach make their architecture transcend the frames of the time and the location of its origin.


ORIS: I would like to start with your background. All three of you are from a small Catalan town of Olot, known for its exceptional scenery, culture, and the school of landscape painting, which has been present in the town for more than one hundred years. How did your town influence your intellectual and cultural formation?


Rafael Aranda: When we decided to work here, it did not just mean working in a place. It meant working in our place. A place where we grew up. In our environment: with our families, our friends... Olot is a special place, it is a bit isolated. But I am increasingly convinced that it is very important to be here to understand our path. This isolation forced us to define the way we work, our special relationship with architecture. ¶ ramon vilalta — I came to Olot when I was three. We came here because my father wanted to work as a teacher at the School of Applied Arts. So I am here because of the scenery, and because of the school. More than this rootedness, my reason is family. We are people who love to travel, but we also like to return. Return to our space. It is a characteristic which, I fear, is uncommon in this age of mobility. We have always believed that things arise from a certain way of feeling and doing, and not so much from learning. Our life is a project carried out in accordance with our way of being. When we were beginning, it was a bit odd to say that you were not going to stay in Barcelona. But we had no doubts. It is very important for young people: believing that you are independent, no matter where you come from.


ORIS: The practice you managed to create in Olot is not only your personal project; it was also significantly contributed to by collaborators, such as craftsmen working on it... Was it Olot that enabled you to do so, or do you think you could have achieved that in Barcelona, as well?


Rafael Aranda: That familiarity with craftsmen, whether it be a carpenter, a blacksmith, or a bricklayer, enabled us to stay and work here. And now that I look at it, coming here was dangerous; it was easier to choose a different way. But we had that opportunity: a friend calling you, and you do not dare turn him down, then a cousin’s house, then the work for the promoter—we had to stay focused. There was no improvisation. And during these last 27, 28 years, along with all our personal changes, we have always tried to retain a certain perspective.


Ramon Vilalta: Build a certain reality.


ORIS: Why did you decide to study at the etsav (Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura del Vallès; Vallès Architecture School)? Where does this feeling of familiarity come from? Why did you not study in Barcelona?


Carme Pigem: At the time, those of us who were from the rural areas, we had to go to that school.


ORIS: You were not able to choose?


Carme Pigem: No. We were from here, we had to study there. It was possible to switch later on, but we went to the etsav, and we stayed there, as well. We thought it was a good decision.


ORIS: As far as I know, the school had an important department of landscape architecture. This could have had an impact on you. Because already at the time you acquired the basis for your subsequent exploration of the relationship between architecture and landscape that is so characteristic of your work.


Ramon Vilalta: I do not know how important it was... In Vallès, there was Enric Batlle. This was the beginning of landscape architecture in Barcelona.


Rafael Aranda: Our study at etsav made a lasting impression on us. It was a distinguishing factor for all of us. Because we found ourselves in isolation again. If we had gone to school in Barcelona, that factor would have certainly been lost.


Carme Pigem: Besides, we were always together, the four of us from Olot!


Ramon Vilalta: Those were difficult times for the school. It had a tradition of twenty years, and there was this strong desire to create something. It was all natural, just the way we like it: few people, open-minded teachers, nice atmosphere. There were no professors with famous names, but we did work a lot. It was a very intense period. After that, when we were starting here, it was even more intense. We were so sleep deprived! We had never worked so hard, not even at school! We realized that it was necessary to give our best in order to take advantage of the opportunities that were available to us.


ORIS: You developed an authentic approach to architecture, right here in Olot. Perhaps your direct knowledge of the landscape, your knowledge of the environment, your direct physical and spiritual relation to it, are among the starting points for your architecture. This directness and intimacy, did they open up a certain creative freedom to work?


Carme Pigem: Freedom?


ORIS: Yes. Or perhaps certain constraints. It all depends on the perspective. What does this proximity with the places you work on mean to you?


Carme Pigem: This is something we have learned.


Rafael Aranda: Yes. Although when working on projects such as the Sant Feliu High School, we immediately had to face other concepts.


Carme Pigem: Close, but different contexts.


Ramon Vilalta: Being rooted here, we got used to certain almost innate connectedness with the context. This connection, which in some way is intuitive—everyone experiences it in one’s own way—allowed us to understand places very well. Later on, it was easy to apply the same approach in different contexts. We have a way of feeling and connecting with the essential values of places otherwise unknown to us. Once you understand these differences, the procedure is the same.


Carme Pigem: It is not just a question of a relationship with a place. It is also an issue of connectedness with everything else. We have developed working strategies that suit particular situations, whether a landscape, a building, or a climate... But it is not something you simply learn. It must come from within. It turns into a way of understanding, and this understanding applies to buildings in all kinds of places.


Rafael Aranda: We were quite familiar with common sense, that constructive logic... We have a clear understanding as to how and why buildings are situated in a place, why that specific environment. There are places we carry inside us, like the one that was created when the railway came to Olot. The walls and terraces had to be raised, because they had to be of a certain height. These walls gradually increase in height some fifty meters.


ORIS: When I first saw the landscape around Olot, what I encountered was a complex relationship of cultivated landscape, interventions in landscape and nature.


Carme Pigem: There is not any natural landscape here. It is humanized. We like to build something that you ultimately cannot clearly divide: this one is old; this one had already existed... What we create in the end is a new landscape, new place, or a new situation where it is very difficult to separate all that again. And we try to act balanced; we do not wish to hide or to impose, but to speak at the same level. In the end you get a result which you cannot relocate, and which makes the place incapable of being understood without that intervention.


ORIS: When speaking of balance in your work, it is a question of creating tension between the existing environment and your intervention. That tension is noticeable, so it is obvious that architecture is an autonomous physical fact, though it follows messages imposed by the context. The outlines of the design process can be discerned. When working outside Olot and its landscape, is your approach to different landscape deliberately local?


Ramon Vilalta: I think not. You cannot learn how to diagnose a place by stratifying it. There is another, more direct connection. Feel from the inside of your being that this place gives you inspiration. Quite a simple attitude. Pay attention to the place; try to feel everything that the place offers to you. You have to respond in a natural way. This attitude equally applies to the city and the landscape. Each place speaks to you in a specific way. I think it is relatively easy for us because we live in Olot. That is to say, the projects are born with a certain ease. Later on, processes get complicated at the level of execution, and the like. But the starting position is quite simple. We do not talk about forms. We do not think visually.


ORIS: Let us take, for example, the Bathing Pavilion that we have visited today. I think some sort of the illumination of the place occurred there. The existing bend in the clearing was accentuated, and one can see similar lines in the abstract volume of the pavilion. On the other side, the space in front of the pavilion highlights the horizontal lines of the coast. All the ingredients were there, but you made an appearance with abstract architecture, with cultural intervention. This is an illumination of existing elements. It is something inherent to the place. In his plays, Bertolt Brecht developed what he called the Verfremdungseffekt, the estrangement effect, where he directed the actors to act in a markedly artificial manner. Thus, the audience could not become emotionally involved with the play. They had to focus all their abilities on the text, and not just absorb the plot passively. Thus, it became clear that this was a dramatic text with its own meaning. Similar things happen in your architecture, I would say. The abstraction of your architecture engages people in understanding physical reality. It would have not been the same had you used stone vault in the pavilion. It would be too literal. Too easy. Too vernacular, perhaps. In my opinion, you use abstraction to encourage people to more intensely experience and reflect on place and space.


Carme Pigem: That is nice.


ORIS: I do not know whether it is a contradiction, but I do feel an emotional closeness to your work. I think it is based on emotions, primarily. My initial feeling towards your work went through my stomach. It was only subsequently that the mind was engaged, as well. I would say that these two aspects flow together. But, of course, it depends on the eyes of the beholder.


Ramon Vilalta: The same thing happened to Isaac Asimov at a conference dedicated to his work... It was time for a discussion, and Asimov voiced a complaint against one of the speakers. The latter told him that Asimov should not think that he knew anything about his works just because he wrote them. In fact, you should not think that we know anything about what we do.


ORIS: This is the role of critics, to interpret what the authors did, and not to repeat what the authors thought they did. The Les Cols Pavilions project is again that game of emphasizing the counterpoint of nature and architecture in trying to encourage people to experience the connection between the body and the environment. It is an emotional act, but intellectual, as well. I think that in these reduced, and yet intensive environments you must start to actively become equally aware of the role of architecture, and the role of the natural phenomena. But surely you have your own reasons. Perhaps you could explain them.


Rafael Aranda: Convergence is mental and emotional. When we designed the Bathing Pavilion, we were quite clear about what exactly a structure in that place should be, which would return value to it. We were worried whether we would succeed in that in the way that would be pertinent to that place. We wanted to create a connection to the place. The pavilion is in a relation to three existing trees. The voids are in relation to them. This building is in connection with the place at which it was made, but we also wanted it to have value in its own right.


Carme Pigem: I think that each design starts rather intellectually. When you see the final result, you discover and learn a lot from your own projects, and then the feelings pour in. When we became aware of that, we tried to work like that. From these first exercises emerges the intellectual expressionism; once you figure that out, you become aware of the principle, and then it becomes more of an impressionism. Here comes the turning point we got to know through our own works.


Ramon Vilalta: We tried to do architecture which would be an expression of something which arouses feelings. From that point of view, beauty is the key: ratios, structure ... code, or language is what has evolved. It is something we have been searching for ever since our first designs. The Bathing Pavilion, which belongs to our early designs, has some kind of slenderness that was extremely difficult to achieve by computing. We were searching for certain proportions to be able to achieve that connection with the trees, the environment. Our search was after that more emotional part, I guess. And we are still on the same track.


Carme Pigem: Yes, we continue with that. And I think it has developed even further.


Ramon Vilalta: We understand architecture as something that provides the inhabitant with a certain type of space. There are still a lot of architectures that say nothing to you. On the other hand, there are those which act with their very appearance... Yesterday, we were in Vienna. Olbrich’s Secession Building carries on, I believe, this complexity which turns into something magical, which attracts people, and is able to move them. There are architectures that succeed in achieving this and those that fail. It is not a question of function or form, respectively.


Carme Pigem: A house is not so much a machine for living as the atmosphere for living.


ORIS: The history of architecture is the history of precedents. New typologies, new ideas, new concepts, new materials… Precedents provide legitimacy to other architects to go back to their predecessors, to work on ideas they suggest, to develop them, taking them even further. Do you follow some old tracks? In your early work, I think, one feels the presence of Mies van der Rohe. Did you do that consciously? Was that a conscious manipulation of references, or it is just our impression?


Ramon Vilalta: We sometimes spoke of the Barcelona School as an underlying influence. We are indebted to it. We were born at that school, but very quickly realized that there were things that did not look good to us. Then we discovered the masters. Mies was the initial influence, very important. Kahn as well. These were total architectures which we were unable to find in Catalan architecture at the time when we were at the end of our studies. We studied and visited their works, but even that did not last long. We started to take interest in art, except that we did not care much about erudition. We feel attached to our vital project. And we find support in all kinds of things in that process, and they are always new. This is our path. When something caught our attention, we stopped for a while until we saw what we might take from that. Architecture ceases to be important for us very quickly. In ten years, it might not even be essential at all. There are all kinds of influences, visible and extremely important, such as the experience we had in Japan. It is something that sustains us. We do not stay for long, and we do not know why. There comes a time where interest in something fades into the background, becomes secondary. It is a continuous path.


ORIS: The progress you are talking about is described in your essay, Arquitectes Universe, Poetics and Creativity. You talk about the importance of innovation. When creating novelties, however, you have to understand the society and the environment in order to reach what is important. So that innovation comes through the essential.


Rafael Aranda: We became aware of the importance of naturalness, of feelings, of the importance of reconnecting us humans with nature’s values. This is the underlying theme of all our designs. It is important for us to make a person feel as being in this world again, make them grasp how small they actually are.


ORIS: What is important? Or rather, is that what is important related to the design process, for instance, in finding out how to get rid of unnecessary lines, how to use only those that are necessary to us?


Carme Pigem: What really matters to us is, essentially, the tabula rasa of the concept. For example, the lighthouse. It was the first national competition in which we participated. When you search the word in a dictionary, it says, a high tower for... We did some research, and finally realized that lighthouses were points of light. Because, originally, lighthouses were fires on the shore. The moment we became aware of it, we started with the most basic concept; it allows you to create a formalization that is not preconceived. You can go further and further. When speaking of essential architecture, it does not refer only to a single aspect. There are different approaches to a word.


ORIS: Each project is new, and each project has its own essentiality. Is that correct?


Carme Pigem: Yes, to some extent. It is always something new.


Ramon Vilalta: Our architecture is not a question of either form or function. But of a vital process. Our reality is changing, but the search is still based on the essential. The most true.


ORIS: We notice that, in terms of resources, there are less and less intermediaries in your architecture. It is increasingly interconnected with nature, often completely immersed.


Rafael Aranda: We believe that nature has answers to everything. To be able to feel the night, the day, the dawn... It provides a person, mentally, with all their dimension. In our office, we wanted to experience nature as much as possible.


ORIS: Basically, it is about reducing the number of elements that stand between man and nature. If we see it like that, does your architecture tend to work with less and less matter?


Ramon Vilalta: If it would be possible for us to work like that, it would really turn into that in the end. There would be less and less architecture in scare quotes, so as to be able to express what man is in relation to the environment and the universe in general. This is not just because of our ambition to create great art. But because of emphasizing this connection. We are slowly learning, and we are still constructing buildings. I hope the time will come when we would be in a position to design within different natural arrangements, in order to be able to live what Rafael has mentioned earlier.


ORIS: Some critics interpret your work primarily in terms of dematerialization, for example pointing out your use of glass. I think they are wrong. Your work with glass uses transparency or translucency and color for the purpose of emphasizing its inherent properties as a space describing material. The same is true of Cor-Ten steel. I think your architecture is based on materiality. What do you think?


Carme Pigem: I agree. And I think that the issue of dematerialization, as you say, is expressed through materiality that always appears fragmented, whether through volume or as thin lines. We try to eliminate barriers. Yes, there is always that fluidity of space, air, light... The dematerialization can occur if we fail to define elements as compact or closed. Yes, our architecture is very material. The thing that would have more to do with the dematerialization of matter is its condensation. It is like the universe—a void with a myriad of tiny and important condensations of matter, such as the Earth. We strive to achieve that gap with small concentrations of matter that are very present and powerful. For me, it is not so much about dematerialization, but about the concentration of matter.


ORIS: Well, if you speak of openness, it is another matter, as it is about the organization of spatial narratives. Prat told me that you explored the organization of residential spaces, trying to redirect life to the exterior as much as possible.


Rafael Aranda: We had realized long ago that the connection between the interior and the exterior cannot go over the plane, but through the volume. That is, there must be a space of transition which would be precisely that interior-exterior space. We believe that it is not good for the façade to have only that element. It must have body, skin. The ability to create transition. We think of that internal-external connection as space.


ORIS: In these explorations you abandon clear divisions between the exterior and the interior. In Llagostera, you designed a cloud of steel which hovers over and around the observer, testing the limits in architecture. There is no roof in the conventional sense. Only material accumulated in the space, which creates blurred architecture.


Rafael Aranda: In a certain way, we wanted to achieve depth, shadow, the entrance of light.


Ramon Vilalta: This reflection on the interior and the exterior is constant. We constantly had in mind Barragán’s interpretation of the wall in relation to modern glass architecture. We want everything. In relation to the exterior, we want the advantage which crystal enables, as well as wall protection.


ORIS: The limits are not only physical; they also refer to the climatic conditions you create. In the projects such as the Bell-Iloc wine cellar, which is under the ground, the question is where the limits are. There are none. You gradually enter the space that is internal and external at the same time; internal which, in some way, even below ground, provides a sense of the outside to which it subsequently returns. Thus the immediacy of the exterior in the interior is present even in the underground projects.


Rafael Aranda: We have always liked to play, to work with all sorts of gradations, whether spatial or material. We like this multiplicity, all these little pieces, and this versatility that occurs as if by chance. We like texture, both spatial and material.


ORIS: The wine cellar breathes, and it is not meant as a metaphor. Literally. These interstices between the plates allow for the passage of fresh air to the interior, which helps to create the atmosphere necessary for the production of wine.


Rafael Aranda: The beauty of the wine cellar is, for example, in the fact that these concepts communicate with different cultures. We have a client from the Arab world, who, whenever he comes here, recognizes his culture, his history. Just imagine how powerful it is.


Carme Pigem: This brings us back to the question of essentiality. To the common basis.


Ramon Vilalta: It is, again, neither about the form nor the language. It is rather about something that architecture communicates, despite the fact that it might dress it in another suit, and despite the fact that we do not know how it will be dressed in the future. But the essence of that what is communicated will be similar. We have a critical attitude towards architecture. It progresses and enriches itself with methods, tools, materials, and types of clothing. This makes it distinctive when viewed from any culture.


ORIS: This could be illustrated, I would say, with your Library and Center for the Elderly projects in Barcelona. Here the old relationships are changing. A former semi-private interior of the block has become publicly available, yet the gradation of space is complex and gradual.


Carme Pigem: Yes, in the Center for the Elderly there is also a courtyard which allows the passage of light into the building, so that this expression can continue. There are many layers.


ORIS: How to work in a context such as the Plaza de Europa in Barcelona? I was there when the construction of your building started, but I did not experience a clear urban planning concept. How do you proceed with respect to metropolitan circumstances in which the city is a collage of singular structures?


Rafael Aranda: The Plaza de Europa has been one of the projects with the largest number of requirements so far. Its stepped form was defined by urban planning parameters. The materiality of the building was also given, because it constituted part of the crown, which, in some way, grouped the vertical elements. Everything was absolutely conditioned. Our task was to find a concept. Not materiality, not form, because everything was already there. We tried to create a place where that whole connection between the internal and the external would be present. Therefore, the answer was topography. We played with the depth that we provided to the facade, the proportion that created a shadow, depth. You experience that from the inside. You feel protected. Nature enters the building. It is the solution. The concept.


Carme Pigem: Through the structure that we were to build, very hermetic, with steps that followed the curvature, we tried to build another structure that would not be an element that closes, but opens up. As the form was already given, a form that seemed a little strange to us, we tried to envisage a structure that would give the building the form. The form we got was not a form without a reason, because we do not like forms without a reason. We were looking for structural logic. What we came up with was a rib drawing the whole building and defining the radii that flew toward the square rather than form a wall. Through that structure, we managed to get rid of the appearance of the building we did not like at all. We tried to make the building breathe more.


Rafael Aranda: It is an abstract building. It cannot be removed from the Plaza de Europa, I dare say. It belongs there. The whole structure flows into a point which determines the square. It is the only building that really belongs to that place. Others may be removed. Not ours.


ORIS: You recently completed the Soulages Museum, which houses the works of the artist who is strongly associated with your sensibility. How do you react to this art? Does it inspire you, or does it perhaps represent a kind of restraint?


Rafael Aranda: When we arrived at the location, it was clear that, in order that we could explain it, the work must be felt. We imagined a distant landscape; we were located on a high place in the city.


Ramon Vilalta: It frees the space, I mean, it does not occupy the park, which can flow. It helps in structuring the circulation of the town. It is an urban structure. Even though it is closed, the building is something alive in itself.


ORIS: I think that the treatment of light was extremely important. It was necessary to create a specific atmosphere for these dark paintings.


Ramon Vilalta: This was very important precisely because of Soulages’ paintings. To see how the light falls on a canvas. It was also one of the first proposed topics in the competition—the light path. You are out, under the porch, which softens the light for you. Later you go inside, and you see the sky again, through the lantern. Like the rhythm of light that climbs and descends and accompanies you in different rooms of the museum.


ORIS: I am very much interested in the RCR LAB.A, the workshop you organize. Why do you do that? Do you feel some sort of obligation to give your knowledge back to the community? How much does the energy of your students feed you?


Ramon Vilalta: It is many things at once. The instinct was to bring people here. It is a moment in which we can tell stories. We are interested in connecting with different people, it really enriches us, and we are also interested in its realization within the framework of certain humanistic complexity. Not only architectural, but connecting artists from different fields of art and culture. And we do not know what will come out of it. It is a little different every year. It is something that is evolving, it is not closed. It is a path that marks a significant change, and that is to be entirely devoted to architecture for more than 25 years, inclined to openness, to connecting and enriching.


ORIS: Yes. It is also essential that in the LAB.A, you do projects that might be built some day?


Carme Pigem: What we want is, since we are already isolated, to be able to feel our presence in the town. To contribute something. To establish connections. We all work on the town projects, real projects. We devise the town’s themes to see if it is possible to make an exhibition in two to three years, where we would be able to show the imaginary Olot. Not so much to actually build it, but to open up possibilities, considerations...


Ramon Vilalta: Above all, it is a month long experience. It is more important than what is done, and what remains after us.


Carme Pigem: For those who attend the workshop, it means a month of immersion. People come to Olot to work on a study, to see the works. It is an experience. And for us, it is a moment when the town gate is open. We invite architects who interest us, we organize conferences, talks... It enriches us at all levels.


Rafael Aranda: Again, it is about creating atmosphere.


Ramon Vilalta: This is what I meant when I spoke of the path. In the end, we transfer that in the workshop. Each person must create their own path; it is an attitude towards life. Never stop being what you are. You grow, you feel, you do what interests you at all times. It is very difficult, because the system we are immersed in is too rigid for us, we do not want to live like that. In a way, we managed to avoid the trap of the system, as much as we could. And in every moment of this vital process, we tried to be able to say that we could do this or that within the confines the system sets for us. That still today, when we are past fifty years of age, we can start something, something we care about—whereas many people of our age feel limited. For me, it resembles a desire for freedom.