Affordable housing earns French couple the Pritzker Prize

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Affordable housing earns French couple the Pritzker Prize
A regional cultural center where an expansion mirrored the original building, designed by the architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, winners of the 2021 Pritzker Prize. The duo were cited for their commitment "to a restorative architecture that is at once technological, innovative and ecologically responsive." Laurent Chalet via The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have never demolished a building in order to construct a new one.

The French architects, who are based in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, believe that every structure can be repurposed, reinvented, reinvigorated. Now, after 34 years of putting that approach into practice, they have won their field’s highest honor: the Pritzker Prize.

“Through their ideas, approach to the profession and the resulting buildings,” the jury said in its citation, “they have proven that a commitment to a restorative architecture that is at once technological, innovative and ecologically responsive can be pursued without nostalgia.”

In a joint telephone interview, Lacaton and Vassal said they have long been opposed to taking things down.

“There are too many demolitions of existing buildings which are not old, which still have a life in front of them, which are not out of use,” said Lacaton, 65. “We think that is too big a waste of materials. If we observe carefully, if we look at things with fresh eyes, there is always something positive to take from an existing situation.”

Vassal, 67, said they even once constructed a building around a forest — always making sure to integrate the natural landscape and preserve the past. “Never demolish, never cut a tree, never take out a row of flowers,” he said. “Take care of the memory of things that were already there, and listen to the people that are living there.”

This philosophy is evident in their projects like their 2012 expansion of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. By burrowing into the basement with raw, minimalist materials, the architects transformed that remnant of the 1937 World’s Fair into what is reputed to be the biggest noncollecting contemporary art museum in Europe.

Similarly, in upgrading the 1960s housing project Tour Bois-le-Prêtre on the outskirts of Paris, the architects — collaborating with Frédéric Druot — extended the floor plates to increase the size of rooms, adding balconies and winter gardens.

“Architecture can become more and more about technology, more and more complex, more and more based on regulations, and we try to avoid all of this,” Vassal said, adding that the pair prefers “to work with very simple elements — air, sun — that we don’t have to pay for.”

That housing project was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 exhibition “Small Scale, Big Change” and won the best architecture award from Dezeen design magazine.

In The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman commended it as “a case study in architectural ingenuity and civic rejuvenation.

“It’s a challenge to urban innovators, too,” Kimmelman wrote. “Instead of replacing the old tower with an entirely new building, the designers saw what was worthwhile about the existing architecture, and added to it.”

Lacaton and Vassal said they emphasize freedom as well as function — leaving spaces undefined, which allows the tenants to be inventive.

Sometimes they are surprised by the new uses that residents come up with. When the architects expected a greenhouse to be filled with plants, for example, the residents instead used it as a living area with armchairs and tables.

“When we were thinking it could be a place for nature, it was a place for activity,” Vassal said. “This place could have been used 50% of the time and in fact is used 90% of the time.”

Their projects not only prove less expensive and more environmentally sustainable, but they also avoid displacing the residents during construction. In 2017, the architects — with Druot and Christophe Hutin — were able to transform and expand 530 apartments in the Grand Parc neighborhood of Bordeaux without requiring residents to leave their homes.

In their public commissions, Lacaton and Vassal also deliberately leave spaces unstructured, so that the inhabitants can determine the uses themselves. To a massive six-story cultural center for a regional collection of art, FRAC Dunkerque (2013), the architects attached a second hall that mirrored the original, allowing it to be used either as an extension of the existing building or as a separate independent environment.

“It’s a place where the most interesting exhibitions finally happened,” Lacaton said of the addition, “where the visitors are more relaxed and have a different relationship with the artwork.”

At their Nantes School of Architecture (2014) on the banks of the Loire River, the team created flexible areas of various sizes to be delineated over time.

“The extra space in addition to the classroom gives room to many different uses, like a small Ping-Pong field for a week or a large workshop or it becomes a TV studio,” Lacaton said. “We have a kind of rule that when we start the project, our goal would be to design as much extra space as possible.”

“We have a strong belief in people,” she continued. “We have a strong belief that people have the ability to be creative, if given the space to do it.”

Vassal added: “If the people inside feel comfortable, feel happy, have the possibility of being alone or looking at the clouds, it is this moment that creates architecture.”

Designing affordable housing has always been paramount, the architects said, because quality is often sacrificed and the results are substandard. Through the use of simple designs and basic materials, they have challenged the notion that generous space and limited funds are incompatible.

This is not about value engineering — reducing certain elements to bring down the cost of the whole — the architects said. Instead, it is about what Lacaton described as “an attitude of careful observation”: investigating a site before rushing to put your mark on it, exploring what might be working before focusing on what should be fixed.

A house may look “ugly or boring” to some, Vassal explained. But look inside and you may find “a lady who offers you cake and coffee. Behind these rooms there is life.”

The importance these architects have put on housing was borne out by the pandemic, they said. With people forced to spend most of their time at home, “we see how important it is to think of the conditions of everyday life,” Lacaton said.

In some instances, their imprint involves very little intervention. For Léon Aucoc Plaza in 1996, the jury citation said, “their approach was simply to undertake the minimal work of replacing the gravel, treating the lime trees, and slightly modifying the traffic, all to grant renewed potential to what already existed.”

They two met in Bordeaux at the School of Architecture during the late 1970s, after which they spent five years working in Niger, in the south of the Sahara.

“The desert for us was really like a second school,” Vassal said.

It was there where they learned what he called a “poetic approach” — how, with elementary materials like wood and fabric, you can create shade.

“It was a really important experience,” he said, “and we still have it in mind.”

Their practice is small — about 10 people including the two of them. Yet it has completed more than 30 projects throughout Europe and West Africa, including 53 low-rise apartment units in Saint-Nazaire, France, and a residential and office building in Geneva.

The architects draw inspiration from their surroundings, Lacaton said.

“The observation of everyday life, of places already there, of buildings built by others, ancient or modern, meetings, books.

“This limitless accumulation of images, emotions and memories constitute fragments of spaces that we memorize,” she added, “and that we like to assemble, to mix, to adapt and to recompose in order to design and invent each new project.”

Some architects have a clear signature — you can often recognize a building designed by other Pritzker laureates. But Vassal and Lacaton said they do not initially concern themselves with how a project is ultimately going to look. Instead, they said, they design from the inside out, focusing on the purpose or use of a space; confident that the process will yield a materially satisfying result.

“We don’t search for an aesthetic,” Vassal said. “This idea that aesthetics are the result of the process of creation is not something that we have to think at the beginning. We think that beauty always happens at the end.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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