The Global, the Local and the Authentic in Contemporary Architecture

No matter which side of the aisle your views rest upon, it is generally agreed that the world is moving into uncharted socio-political and economic territory. As modern architects living and working in the American West, we can’t help but wonder how this new order will affect our industry: How will clients feel about the home of their dreams when their dreams may no longer reflect reality? Alternatively, will others feel bolstered by the changes that have occurred and want to invest further in their future on terra firma? What will happen to the cost of architecture, and the materials and labor of its construction? How will a shifting perception of the “local” versus the “global” influence the way our architects design and how our clients view contemporary architecture?

Horizon House by RCR Arquitectes. Photo courtesy of H. Suzuki

It seems others are asking similar questions. The 2017 Pritzker Prize (architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel) was awarded to a firm that, like Sparano + Mooney Architecture, is attempting to strike a delicate balance between maintaining a regional dialect and simultaneously conversing fluently in the international architectural dialogue. RCR Arquitectes, founded in 1988 by Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta in Olot, Spain, is the 2017 Pritzker laureate. Hailed by the jury for an “approach that creates buildings and places that are both local and universal at the same time,” RCR is known for an adept handling of natural and industrial materials, and sensitive integration of their built environments into the surrounding landscapes. As the Pritzker jury noted, RCR have resisted “the call of the metropolis in favor of remaining closely connected to their roots”.

As the Los Angeles Times has reported, it is – if not explicitly stated – easy to implicitly read the jury’s decision as a comment on the ways that globalization, urbanization, the economic crisis and current political climate have derailed rural culture and the “authentic” in localized architecture. Indeed, the jury’s statement sharply underlines this viewpoint: “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 lost our local values, our local art, and our local customs.” There is anxiety here, the same trepidation that some architectural analysts have credited with giving rise to the political forces we’ve recently seen at play. The LA Times also indicates that while this fear is justified, temperance may be found in a new approach to the production and consumption of culture, and architecture might play an essential role in this new path. RCR’s tagline might say it best: the need for a “universe of shared creativity”, in which we are able to stand firmly rooted but welcoming to wider socio/economic/political/historical/cultural influences. Looking out, while honoring what’s within.

Topaz Museum + Education Center, designed by Sparano + Mooney Architecture. Photo courtesy of Brian Buroker

It is important to consider this language and what it might mean to us and our own “regional” approach, set within the inevitable, international backdrop of our industry. Our firm collectively and our architects individually draw inspiration from the context of the American West – the region’s unique history, landscape, materials, architecture and culture has deeply informed and inspired our work, which has been commissioned by clients in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and California, as well as Africa and Haiti; our team has lived, worked, and studied in London, Switzerland, Spain, China, Italy and Germany, as well as the United States. Our architectural clients hail from diverse backgrounds. This polyglot has nevertheless led SMA to believe in the potential of the American West as a point of departure for world-class design, and we have consistently produced a body of work as architects dedicated to contributing to the elevation of a strong regional design movement.

The Topaz Museum, for instance, was designed by Sparano + Mooney Architecture to house the collections and present the experiences of the Japanese Americans detained at the nearby internment camp during WWII. It is tied directly to a remote locality, and yet it is inextricably linked to an ongoing debate about xenophobia and cultural identity. This relationship is complex. Is multicultural the new local? Can we entrust architecture to articulate our reservations about this new world? Perhaps it is not a matter of answering these questions definitively, but of the role of architecture to pose them in the first place.

Source: “Architecture’s highest honor goes to Catalan trio, with a nod to the forces that gave rise to Brexit and Trump”, by Christopher Hawthorne, the LA Times, March 1st, 2017