Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have never demolished a building to build a new one.
The French architects, who are based in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, believe that any structure can be re-used, reinvented and reinvigorated. Now, after 34 years of implementing this approach, they have received the highest award in their field: the Pritzker Prize.
“Through their ideas, their approach to the profession and the resulting buildings,” said the jury in their quote, “they have proven that a commitment to restorative architecture that is at the same time technologically, innovative and ecologically accessible can be pursued without nostalgia can be.”
In a joint telephone interview, Lacaton and Vassal said they have long been opposed to putting things down.
“There are too many demolitions of existing buildings that are not old, that are still alive and that are not out of order,” said Lacaton, 65. “We think this is too much of a waste of materials. If we observe closely, if we look at things with new eyes, there is always something positive that we can get out of an existing situation. “
67-year-old Vassal said they even built a building around a forest once – always making sure to integrate the natural landscape and preserve the past. “Never tear it down, never cut a tree, never take out a row of flowers,” he said. “Mind the memory of things that were already there and listen to the people who live there.”
This philosophy is evident in her projects such as the expansion of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2012. By digging into the basement with raw, minimalist materials, the architects transformed this remnant of the 1937 World’s Fair into what is supposedly the largest non-collecting museum of contemporary art in Europe.
Similarly, when they modernized the 1960s Tour Bois-le-Prêtre residential project on the outskirts of Paris, in collaboration with Frédéric Druot, the architects expanded the floor slabs to increase the size of the rooms and added balconies and conservatories.
“Architecture can get more and more complex, more and more complex, more and more regulatory based, and we try to avoid all of that,” said Vassal, adding that the couple prefer to “work with very simple elements – air, sun – we don’t have to pay for that. “
This residential project was presented in 2010 in the exhibition “Small Scale, Big Change” of the Museum of Modern Art and was awarded the prize for the best architecture by the design magazine Dezeen.
In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman praised it as a “case study of architectural ingenuity and civic rejuvenation.
“It’s also a challenge for urban innovators,” wrote Kimmelman. “Instead of replacing the old tower with a completely new building, the designers recognized what was worthwhile in the existing architecture and complemented it.”
Lacaton and Vassal emphasized both freedom and function – leaving spaces undefined, which enables tenants to be inventive.
Sometimes they are surprised by the new uses of the residents. For example, when the architects expected a greenhouse to be filled with plants, residents instead used it as a living area with armchairs and tables.
“When we thought it could be a place for nature, it was a place for activity,” said Vassal. “This place could have been used 50 percent and is even 90 percent used.”
Not only are their projects proving to be cheaper and more environmentally friendly, but they also avoid evicting residents during construction. In 2017, the architects – with Druot and Christophe Hutin – were able to convert and expand 530 apartments in the Grand Parc district of Bordeaux without the residents having to leave their homes.
Lacaton and Vassal also deliberately leave rooms unstructured in their public commissions so that the residents can determine the use themselves. To a huge six-story cultural center for a regional art collection, FRAC Dunkerque (2013), the architects attached a second hall that mirrored the original and made it possible to use it either as an extension of the existing building or as a stand-alone environment.
“It’s a place where the most interesting exhibitions finally took place,” said Lacaton of the addition, “where visitors are more relaxed and have a different relationship with the work of art.”
At the Nantes School of Architecture (2014) on the banks of the Loire, the team created flexible areas of different sizes that were to be demarcated over time.
“The extra space in addition to the classroom can accommodate many different purposes, such as: For example, a small ping-pong field for a week or a large workshop or it becomes a television studio, ”said Lacaton. “We have a kind of rule that when we start the project our goal is to create as much additional space as possible.”
“We believe strongly in people,” she continued. “We firmly believe that people have the ability to be creative when given the space.”
Vassal added: “When people are comfortable inside, feel happy, have the opportunity to be alone or look into the clouds, it is this moment that creates architecture.”
Designing affordable housing has always been of paramount importance, the architects said, as quality is often sacrificed and the results are inferior. By using simple designs and basic materials, they have challenged the notion that generous space and limited resources are incompatible.
This is not about value engineering – reducing certain elements to lower the cost of the whole – said the architects. Instead, it is about what Lacaton calls the “posture of careful observation”: examine a site before you rush to tag it, and examine what may be working before focusing on what should be fixed .
A house may look “ugly or boring” to some, explained Vassal. But look inside and maybe you will find a woman who will offer you cake and coffee. There is life behind these spaces. “
The importance the couple placed on housing has been confirmed by the pandemic, the architects said. With people being forced to spend most of their time at home, “we see the importance of thinking about the conditions of everyday life,” said Lacaton.
In some cases, their printing requires very little manipulation. For Léon Aucoc Plaza in 1996, the jury quoted: “Their approach was simply to do the minimal work of replacing the gravel, treating the linden trees and modifying the traffic slightly to give new potential to what was already there. “
The two met at the School of Architecture in Bordeaux in the late 1970s. They then worked for five years in Niger in the southern Sahara. “The desert was really like a second school for us,” said Vassal. There they learned what he called a “poetic approach” – how to create shadows with elementary materials such as wood and fabric. “It was a really important experience,” he said, “and we still have it on our mind.”
Your practice is small – about 10 people including both of them. Still, more than 30 projects across Europe and West Africa have been completed, including a multipurpose theater in Lille (2013) and a residential and office building in Geneva (2020).
The architects take inspiration from their surroundings, said Lacaton. “The observation of everyday life, of places that are already there, of buildings that have been built by others, old or modern, meetings, books.
“This limitless accumulation of images, emotions and memories are fragments of spaces that we memorize,” she added, “and that we like to put together, mix, match and recreate to design and invent each new project. “
Some architects have a clear signature – you can often recognize a building designed by other Pritzker Prize winners. But Vassal and Lacaton said that initially they don’t care what a project will ultimately look like. Instead, they said, they design inside out and focus on the purpose or use of a space. confident that the process will lead to a materially satisfactory result.
“We’re not looking for an aesthetic,” said Vassal. “At the beginning we don’t have to think about this idea that aesthetics are the result of the creation process. We think that beauty always happens in the end. “