by Gautam Sen, Avik ChattopadhyayJan 13, 2021
People, purpose, purity – if the choice for this year’s Pritzker Prize could be defined by three qualities, it would be these. With their democratic design that is unassumingly uncomplicated and unimposing, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have been announced as the recipients of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize. With exemplary projects such as Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2012), Cap Ferret House in France (1998), social houses for Cité Manifeste (Mulhouse, France, 2005) and École Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nantes (Nantes, France, 2009), the duo was cited for creating works that are significantly and enduringly transformative at an urban scale.
Having met in the early 1970s while studying architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture et de Paysage de Bordeaux, the two established their studio Lacaton & Vassal in Paris in 1987. In the interim years Lacaton pursued a Masters in Urban Planning while Vassal moved to Niger to practice urban planning. It was Vassal’s move that proved to be integral to the inception and development of the duo’s design ideology. Their first joint project was a straw hut, built with locally sourced bush branches in Niamey, Niger.
Destruction as InspirationIt wasn’t the design or construction of this project that inspired their process, but the surprising destruction. Relenting to the winds within two years of completion, the moment inspired them to vow to never demolish what could be redeemed. While it may seem like a poetic revelation, it did set the studio’s practice on the path of conceptualising and proposing new possibilities for regenerative urban plans.
Good architecture is a space where something special happens, where you want to smile, just because you are there. – Jean-Philippe Vassal
The duo has completed over 30 projects throughout Europe and West Africa, including private and social housing, urban developments and cultural institutions. They begin every project with an intense process of discovery, which includes observing and finding value in what already exists. Vassal elaborates, “Good architecture is a space where something special happens, where you want to smile, just because you are there. It is also a relationship with the city, a relationship with what you see, and a place where you are happy, where people feel well and comfortable—a space that gives emotions and pleasures”. While the concerns of their work address the urban scale, the architects design from the inside out, starting from the human experience.
Project : Expansion
The authenticity of creating spaces that address the people, who are to occupy them, is evident in a project constructed in 1993 in Floirac, France. This is not a regenerative or transformative project. The Latapie House is the result of a commission to build a low-budget home for a couple with two children. Their application of greenhouse technologies to create bioclimatic conditions began here. Using the sun, in harmony with natural ventilation, solar shading and insulation, they created adjustable and desirable microclimates, allowing larger residence on a more modest budget. This may well be the key to their projects as they are mindful of the ground realities, taking into account the monetary and spatial restrictions. “From very early on, we studied the greenhouses of botanic gardens with their impressive fragile plants, the beautiful light and transparency, and ability to simply transform the outdoor climate. It’s an atmosphere and a feeling, and we were interested in bringing that delicacy to architecture,” shares Lacaton.
Project : Transformation
A defining project that truly captures their axiom of ‘never demolish’, is their collaborative project with Frédéric Druot. The project consists of the transformation of inhabited social buildings, first phases of a renovation program of the 'Cité du Grand Parc' in Bordeaux. The building was constructed in the early 60s and like many mass housing projects built during this period it has fallen into disuse. Instead of demolishing the structure, an act the 2021 laureates call “an act of violence”, the duo proposed transforming the buildings into beautiful dwellings with redefined qualities and comfort. Lacaton explains, “The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term. It is a waste of many things—a waste of energy, a waste of material, and a waste of history. Moreover, it has a very negative social impact”. The architects increased the interior square footage of every unit through the removal of the original concrete façade, and extended the footprint of the building in the form of bioclimatic balconies. These bioclimatic balconies are a feature that has evolved from the lesson they developed while creating the 1993 Latapie House. The once-constrained living rooms now extend out onto terraces with large windows that look out into the city. “Our work is about solving constraints and problems, and finding spaces that can create uses, emotions and feelings. At the end of this process and all of this effort, there must be lightness and simplicity, when all that has been before was so complex,” explains Vassal.
The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term. It is a waste of many things—a waste of energy, a waste of material, and a waste of history. – Anne Lacaton
While the Pritzker is the highest honour bestowed on any architect, the practice of Lacaton & Vassal is not new to receiving commendations. They were the recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trienal de Lisboa (2016); and the Fundació Mies van der Rohe, European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture (2019) along with Frédéric Druot Architecture and Christophe Hutin Architecture for the transformation of 530 dwellings at Grand Parc, Bordeaux.
As associate and visiting professors at institutes all across Europe, their work and ideology continue to pave a way forward that prioritises the enrichment of human life. Their belief in putting the individual socially, ecologically and economically at the forefront, aids the evolution of a city in a unique new direction. Lacaton and Vassal are an inspiration to generations of architects who envision the future through the lens of generosity. A series of upcoming projects include the housing transformations of a former hospital into a 138-unit, mid-rise apartment building in Paris. As well as works in progress in Anderlecht (Belgium), Toulouse (France), and a 40-unit, private housing, mid-rise building in Hamburg, Germany.
Notes from the JuryThe 2021 Pritzker jury, which includes previous laureates Alejandro Aravena (Chair), Kazuyo Sejima and Wang Shu, cites Lacaton and Vassal’s contribution as reflective of architecture’s democratic spirit. Stating in their official citation, “Through their ideas, approach to the profession, and the resulting buildings, they have proven that a commitment to a restorative architecture that is at once technological, innovative, and ecologically responsive can be pursued without nostalgia”.
The jury further notes, “The modernist hopes and dreams to improve the lives of many are reinvigorated through their work that responds to the climatic and ecological emergencies of our time, as well as social urgencies, particularly in the realm of urban housing. They accomplish this through a powerful sense of space and materials that creates architecture as strong in its forms as in its convictions, as transparent in its aesthetic as in its ethics. At once beautiful and pragmatic, they refuse any opposition between architectural quality, environmental responsibility, and the quest for an ethical society.”