The Shape of Water: A Reflection on Mirroring

architects Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramón Vilalta
written by Lovorka Prpić


Each building designed by these architects is special and is uncompromisingly of its time and place. Their works are always the fruit of true collaboration and at the service of the community. They understand that architecture and its surroundings are intimately intertwined and know that the choice of materials and the craft of building are powerful tools for creating lasting and meaningful spaces. For these reasons, exemplified in all their built work, and for their ability to express the local, but also the universal, uniting us with one another through architecture, Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta are awarded the 2017 Pritzker Architecture Prize.

(from The 2017 Pritzker Prize Jury Citation; Jury Chair Glenn Murcutt)


The annual Pritzker Architecture Prize is the most significant professional recognition that an architect can receive for his or her work: only rare individuals receive it. This year, for the first time, the Pritzker was awarded to three architects, thus at the same time recognizing the universe of shared creativity, as they themselves call it, in which they have been orbiting in a focused way for almost three decades. In that year of 1988, just after having completed their architectural studies, Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta bravely returned to their Catalan town of Olot, in which they had grown up, and founded their practice, RCR Arquitectes. Since then, they have been living and working in Olot continuously – somewhat isolated, but precisely for that reason originally and independently creating with dedication and thoughtfulness one of the most special architectural practices of all.




As they say, the journey through life is a project, a reflection of character. These three architects are characterized by their naturalness, sensitivity and empathy, along with their persistent, decisive dedication to the search for substance, for the fundamental essence. They find answers to their questions in nature, in the logic of the universe. They seek to bring man back to nature, and therefore bring space closer to nature, because a place close to nature is close to the truth. In their projects, they dissolve the boundaries between the interior and exterior spaces; by using gradation and filters, they create transitional spaces. The aim is to remove obstacles and structure the flow of air, light and cognition; hence, the architectural materialization is reduced, concentrated and fragmented. Each project starts with a clear view, without prejudice, assumptions or speculations. They have a rare gift for the perception of place and cultural context, to which they respond naturally, with constructive logic, using a controlled register of utilized elements and materials. Their thoughtful spatial intervention in the environment creates the relationship of tense balance. This results in a new, vital, harmonious whole, a new place. The method of cooperation between the architects from the RCR is shared creativity: a well-practiced communication between close-knit individuals complementing each other creatively, a form of a continuous, fluid dialogue that leads to the unexpected. The result is a strong and calm, aesthetically balanced architecture; the architecture of atmosphere that evokes feelings, that touches and moves. An architecture inseparable from place, and at the same time universal.




In each individual project, the architects from the RCR studio remain true to their search. An adequate example is also the building of a new indoor swimming pool in Taradell, a suburban town some 50 kilometers north of Barcelona. The building has its name: Space of Water and Health. Not a swimming pool hall—because this would be a presumption, a preset image—but entirely abstractly, a space of water. At the entrance to the building there is a graphic sign, an ideogram whose authors are the architects: a barely noticeable wave of a long horizontal with the fluid stroke of a brush, cut by an asymmetrically set dense interval of rhythmicized vertical lines—horizontal and vertical, soft and strong, liquid and solid—a clean structure in a tense balance, a suggestion of a porch mirroring in the water. In designing the space of water, the architects do not restrict themselves to conceiving a swimming pool hall, but they create a wider, liquid world of fluid boundaries, full of reflections. The space of water overflows into the exterior, so the building becomes a porous object affected by water, on and in the water. An example of such approach is their initial design for the indoor swimming pool in Manlleu (unfortunately modified in the elaboration), and the pavilion in Llagostera. Similar conceptual components are present in the crematorium project in Belgium and in the Lotus Blau pavilion.




With their characteristic brown-purple-black watercolour-croquis, the architects reveal to us the layers of the place. The new swimming pool is located in the sports facilities zone of a small town, on the edge of the settlement, along the perimeter road. This road is the communication axis that delimits two areas of different character: the central urban high density zone and the surrounding cultivated green landscape with occasional free-standing buildings. The road is at the same time the boundary between two topographies: on one side, the built structure cascades upwards, offering short intermittent vistas of the urban fabric of the intersecting streets, while, on the other, it is a counterpoint of broad vistas to the de-levelled green landscape of dirt roads and surrounding hills. The communication axis delimits the two asymmetric structures like a spine: one more solid and rhythmicized (rigid), the other soft and fluid (liquid). The second structure is read as a diluted diffuse reflection—the reflection of the first structure.




The topography of the terrain defined the conceptual configuration of the space of water. The architects have solved the difference in elevation between the road and the sports grounds with a simple, clearly articulated de-levelled volume, keeping the existing vistas and respecting the different characters of the urban and green areas. The swimming pool hall is structured as a transversely transparent construction of slender steel frames, and set on the yard side of a long, low block of service spaces, wedged in along the retaining wall of the road. By dragging the swimming pool hall into the background, the low roof of the sunken service block seems like an extension of the pedestrian corridor of the street. An urban belvedere is created here, which offers a view over the sports facilities inside the building and the green landscape of the park and forest in the background. The de-levelled street façade of the hall is framed by the belvedere almost like a picket fence or railing: towards the street, it creates a low glazed wall whose rhythmicized verticals are reflected from the smooth surface of the shallow water mirror on the roof of the service block. On the opposite façade towards the sunken park, the structure of the swimming pool hall is revealed in its full vertical dimensions, and, from this side, the hall seems like a freestanding pavilion. Built-in towards the street and the pavilion-like structure towards the park: the architecture is a reflection – a mirror image of the present determinants of the place.




The experience of the belvedere and the reflection along the outer mirror pool is a gift of the architects not only to the user but also to the occasional passer-by. The building is accessed from the park through a promenade that winds around the house. The descent down the ramp is a gradual immersion in the atmosphere of tranquillity. The visitor leaves behind the rhythm of the city, and gets closer to nature. The experience of the outdoor space continues in the interior through the roof skylights along the service spaces. The landscape, in turn, penetrates deeply into the swimming pool hall. The exterior space flows into it from two directions: from the park and from the street belvedere above the dressing rooms. The house is a permeable spatial frame, not an obstacle.


Transparency is not literal, but ambivalent, phenomenological: like a veil that simultaneously separates and connects, hides and reveals. The phenomenological transparency is a perceptual play of filters that introduces the time dimension of rhythm, intervals, and sequences into the space experience. The filters prevent the superficial experience of space. The postponement of perception stimulates the senses and encourages deep reflection through the gradual exploration of space by movement.


In the pool hall, the filters are the vertical elements that have a constructive role and protect from the sun on the west and east façades. These are authored steel columns-frames of pronounced tectonics, reduced width and accentuated depth—the pure condensation of matter. Their flat character contributes to the fragmented materiality of this architecture. The rhythm of the construction both rhythmicizes the natural light in the interior and structures the façade. The reflections on the water of the swimming pool draw in the outer space, and subdue the presence of the rhythmic structure of steel supports. The façade is oriented towards the planted pines whose verticals reflect the surrounding forests, but also the supporting structure of the façade, introducing spatial gradation. Between the interior and exterior, the gradient of the transitional spaces is created: the façade is not a two-dimensional plane, but a series of space-time intervals. The phenomenology of that transition was described by Herman Hertzberger: As we change from place to place, what we experience is a multitude of impressions which give rise to associations and echo degrees of interiority and exteriority within each one of us.


A visitor who experiences a structured reflection of vertical filters in the pool area does not have this experience only once, only there and then. The spatial experience is deepened and nuanced by moving through the sequences of space. The architects offer a gradation of experience by multiplying it: first by the perception from the outside, from the street belvedere, then from the park, and then in the reflections in the shallow rooftop pool. There is certainly no pleonasm there: the multiplicity of spatial experiences is achieved through an uncompromising rationalization of architectural resources. With a structured gradation of experiences, the theme of reflection goes from the phenomenological to the conceptual level.




The concept of reflection enhances the anchoredness of the building in the environment, and underlines its inseparability from the place. The architecture takes the essential elements of the environment. By affirming them, it establishes dialogue – a relationship with the place. The pavilion character of the pool area relates to the stand-alone size of the neighbouring sports hall; the planted pines reflect the nearby forest, while the street belvedere mirrors the presence of urban niches, and continues the route of the promenades with vistas of the scenery. The selection of materials also contributes to the anchoring to the environment. Galvanized steel covers all surfaces, enhancing the atmosphere of transparency and width. The manifestation of the architecture reflects the colours of the environment; it is subject to natural alterations.


The reflection—mirroring—is basically the result of fixing one’s gaze: focusing attention, paying attention. The conceptual reflection of the space of water reflects the character of the authors, their ability to empathize, the understanding of man, culture, and nature.


The character of water is relational, conditioned by eternal putting in relation, and so is its space: the domain of fusion and influence. The fluid world of water nullifies any stiffness, neutralizes resistance attempt. The space of water permeates us, dissolves personal boundaries—it liquefies us.