Return of the Natives

New York

2 March 2017

In the interesting times in which we find ourselves, the announcement that the Catalonian architects Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta have won the Pritzker Prize came as a rare piece of unmitigated good news.

Practicising together as RCR Arquitectes since 1988, the trio has spent their entire career based in the small town of Olot, in the far north-east of Iberia. The vast majority of the practice's projects sit within its native province of Girona, with a few in nearby Barcelona and a handful in France and Belgium, as well as a single apartment block in Dubai. Throughout RCR has developed a rare sensibility to the specifics of locality, creating works that don't just fit into their setting but highlight that place's essence. This is paired to an aesthetic of frequently breathtaking beauty. And, if RCR's abundant merits were not enough, it comes as some relief that Spain's second Pritzker victory is not that of Santiago Calatrava, king of spiralling costs, faulty functioning and, as a talk in London last month demonstrated, casual misogyny.

Although much has been made of RCR's relative obscurity, its selection flies with the prevailing winds of recent years. Although each distinct in their approach and interests, the last three winners – the low cost housing maestro Alejandro Aravena, the sustainable trailblazer Frei Otto and the disaster relief pioneer Shigeru Ban – all hew towards sensitive regional work. With the relative exception of Aravena, they are figures whose fame was previously confined to the architectural world.

The last time the Pritzker was awarded to the sort of globetrotting, "icon"-creating architect (dominant last decade) was in 2008, with the Frenchman Jean Nouvel. Given this year's jury – chaired by previous laureate Glenn Murcutt, patron saint of context-specific, environmentally-conscious, small-scale projects, and including the sustainability-focused critic and curator Kristin Feireiss and professor Yung Ho-Chang – the round of surprise that has greeted RCR's honour is perhaps the most surprising part of the whole thing.

But even by comparison with, say, 2009 Pritzker winner Peter Zumthor, whose breathtaking constructions belong indubitably to the central Alps, RCR's work has an extreme connection to its region. Projects such as the Bell-Lloc Winery (2007) don't stick out of the landscape so much as nestle into it, while the spectacular marquee for Les Cols (2011), a restaurant in Olot, glides like an apparition, bringing the surrounding hills somehow closer. In an urban setting, the skeletal La Lira theatre (2011) in Ripoll, built on the site of a former venue, is scaled to enhance the surrounding cityscape. Open to the town's streets on one site and a river-crossing bridge on the other, it magnifies the city's public space. The attention to locale is exemplary; this building would not belong anywhere else.

That is not to say RCR's work is inward-looking or nativist. Its influences encompass American high modernism and the gardens of Japan, as well as artists like the cordon steel master Richard Serra and the black-and-light painter Pierre Soulages, whose superb museum in southwestern France (2014) RCR designed. And as the Musée Soulages demonstrates, the practice's sensitivity to place is not only tied to Girona. Though not RCR's most distinguished project, the Muraba building in Dubai sits in synch with its open-skied setting and frequent strong winds. Though RCR are undeniably a conventional architectural practice in that it designs buildings for (generally public) clients, there are some echoes of recently-heralded social practices like Assemble and Kéré Architecture, both of whom tilt so local as to have a building's users collaborate on its design.

The sort of architect that used to win garlands, Nouvel and Calatrava (whose approach to locale, according to The Observer's Rowan Moore, is to "flatter the place where he is putting on a show") amongst them, posited a sort of second International Style, albeit one where function and environment came a distant second and third behind the appearance of the building itself. Frank Gehry could import the same shiny sail-like forms to Bilbao, LA, Paris and is soon to do so in Abu Dhabi; Zaha Hadid could apply her geometric fragments to schools, museums and car factories. While the Pritzker Prize has spent a decade rewarding those conscious of context, the choice of RCR feels like a particular watershed. The stars may still receive the lucrative commissions – Calatrava is currently designing a 1.4m sq ft complex in London – but architecture's intellectual heft and prestige is on the other side.