The 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honor, has been granted to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, founders of Lacaton & Vassal, the French duo renowned for their multiple sustainable housing projects and for the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art gallery in Paris. In their three decades of work, Lacaton & Vassal always prioritized the “enrichment of human life”, benefiting the individual and supporting the evolution of the city.
“Good architecture is open—open to life, open to enhance the freedom of anyone, where anyone can do what they need to do. It should not be demonstrative or imposing, but it must be something familiar, useful and beautiful, with the ability to quietly support the life that will take place within it.” — Anne Lacaton
Announced today by Tom Pritzker, Chairman of The Hyatt Foundation, Anne Lacaton (1955, Saint-Pardoux, France) and Jean-Philippe Vassal (1954, Casablanca, Morocco) from Lacaton & Vassal have been selected as the 49th and 50th Laureates of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, for their architectural work that has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment. Moreover, Lacaton became the first French female architect to ever win the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Praised for their approach that renews modernist hopes of improving the lives of many and reexamines the definition of the profession itself, the French studio generates interventions that “respond to the climatic and ecological emergencies of our time, as well as social urgencies, particularly in the realm of urban housing”. Re-thinking the notion of sustainability, the duo believes firmly in the “never demolish” principle, taking the opportunity to upgrade and transform, while allowing enduring properties of a building to remain.
This year, more than ever, we have felt that we are part of humankind as a whole. Be it for health, political or social reasons, there is a need to build a sense of collectiveness. Like in any interconnected system, being fair to the environment, being fair to humanity, is being fair to the next generation. […] Lacaton and Vassal are radical in their delicacy and bold through their subtleness, balancing a respectful yet straightforward approach to the built environment. — Alejandro Aravena, Chair of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury.
Having met in the late 1970s at École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture et de Paysage de Bordeaux, Anne Lacaton (1955, Saint-Pardoux, France) and Jean-Philippe Vassal (1954, Casablanca, Morocco) built their first joint project in Niamey, Niger, a temporary straw hut, constructed with locally sourced bush branches that relented to the wind within two years of completion. At that time, they vowed to “never demolish what could be redeemed […] extending through addition, respecting the luxury of simplicity, and proposing new possibilities”. In 1987, they established Lacaton & Vassal in Paris, focusing on generous spaces and freedom of use through economic and ecological materials. So far, they have completed over 30 projects throughout Europe and West Africa, ranging from private cultural and academic institutions to public spaces, social housing, and urban developments.
Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have always understood that architecture lends its capacity to build a community for all of society. […] Their aim to serve human life through their work, demonstration of strength in modesty, and cultivation of a dialogue between old and new, broadens the field of architecture. — Tom Pritzker
Increasing living space “inexpensively”, the architects first integrated greenhouse technologies through winter gardens and balconies. Their initial application was in the Latapie House in 1993 (Floirac, France) before progressing to bigger scales, and transforming La Tour Bois le Prêtre in 2011 (Paris, France), a 17-story, 96-unit city housing project originally built in the early 1960s, alongside Frédéric Druot. Rejecting city plans calling for the demolition of social housing, they removed the original concrete façade and extended the footprint of the building to form bioclimatic balconies, making every unit bigger. This framework allowed a dramatic visual reinvention of many social housing complexes. In fact, in 2017, they transformed 530 units within three buildings at Grand Parc in Bordeaux, France, with Christophe Hutin architecture, Frédéric Druot, designing from the inside out to prioritize the welfare of a building’s inhabitants.
Always within the same concepts of maximizing usable space, in their most recent transformation of Palais de Tokyo (Paris, France 2012), Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal increased the museum by 20,000 square meters, to accommodate changing needs. On another hand, for the Atelier de Préfabrication no. 2 (AP2), a postwar shipbuilding facility, the duo chose to erect a second building, identical in shape and size to the first, instead of filling the existing void. Working with academic institutions, the architects were able to almost double the areas outlined in the brief of the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes in 2009 (Nantes, France), creating spaces that are deliberately un-prescribed and adaptable.
Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing. 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. For us, it is an act of violence. — Anne Lacaton
Other significant works from Lacaton & Vassal include Cap Ferret House in 1998 (Cap Ferret, France), 14 social houses for Cité Manifeste (Mulhouse, France 2005); Pôle Universitaire de Sciences de Gestion (Bordeaux, France 2008); low-rise apartments for 53 units (Saint-Nazaire, France 2011), a multipurpose theater (Lille, 2013), Ourcq-Jaurès student and social housing (Paris, France 2013); a 59-unit social housing development at Jardins Neppert (Mulhouse, France 2014–2015); and a residential and office building in Chêne-Bourg (Geneva, Switzerland 2020).
Current works in progress comprise the housing transformations of a former hospital into a 138-unit, mid-rise apartment building in Paris, France, and an 80-unit, mid-rise building in Anderlecht, Belgium; the transformation of an office building in Paris, France; mixed-use buildings offering hotel and commercial space in Toulouse, France; and a 40-unit, private housing, mid-rise building in Hamburg, Germany.
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. — Jean-Philippe Vassal
Lacaton and Vassal are the recipients of the BDA Grand Prize, 2020; Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, Cité de l’Architecture & du Patrimoine, 2018, with Druot; Académie d’Architecture, Gold Medal, 2016; the Heinrich Tessenow Medal, 2016; the Rolf Schock Prize, Visual Arts, 2014; Daylight & Building Components Award, Villum Foundation, and Velux Foundation, 2011; the International Fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects, 2009; the Grand Prix National d’Architecture, France, 2008; and the Schelling Architecture Award, 2006. Their practice, Lacaton & Vassal, has been awarded 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.
The work of Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal reflects architecture’s democratic spirit. 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. This is the mantra of the team of Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal since founding their Paris-based firm in 1987. Not only have they defined an architectural approach that renews the legacy of modernism, but they have also proposed an adjusted definition of the very profession of architecture. 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 create 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.
For more than 30 years, their critical approach to architecture has embodied generosity of space, ideas, uses, and economy of means, materials, and also of shape and form. This approach has resulted in innovative projects for residential, cultural, educational, and commercial buildings. Since their early projects, including Latapie House, the private house in Bordeaux, and civic works such as the proposal for the Human Science Center in Saint-Denis or the School of Architecture in Nantes, they have shown sensitivity and warmth of experience to their buildings’ users. The architects have expressed that buildings are beautiful when people feel well in them, when the light inside is beautiful and the air is pleasant, and when there is an easy flow between the interior and exterior.
The notion of belonging and being accountable to a larger whole involves not only fellow humans but the planet in general. From very early on, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have consistently expanded the notion of sustainability to be understood as a real balance between its economic, environmental, and social pillars. Their work has delivered through a variety of projects that actively address responsibility in these three dimensions.
The practice begins every project with a process of discovery which includes intensely observing and finding value in what already exists. In the case of the 1996 commission, Léon Aucoc Plaza, 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.
In their housing projects for the transformation of the Paris block, Tour Bois le Prêtre, and three blocks in the Grand Parc neighborhood in Bordeaux (both realized with Frederic Druot), instead of demolition and reconstruction, they carefully added space to the existing buildings in the form of generous extensions, winter gardens and balconies that allow for freedom of use and therefore are supportive of the real lives of the residents. There is a humility in the approach that respects the aims of the original designers and the aspirations of the current occupants.
For the cultural center, FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais in Dunkirk, they chose to keep the original hall and attach the second one of similar dimensions to the existing building. Absent is nostalgia for the past. Rather, they seek transparency, openness, and luminosity with a respect for the inherited and a quest to act responsibly in the present. Today, a building that previously went unnoticed becomes an iconic element in a renewed cultural and natural landscape.
Through their belief that architecture is more than just buildings, through the issues they address and the proposals they realize, through forging a responsible and sometimes solitary path illustrating that the best architecture can be humble and is always thoughtful, respectful, and responsible, they have shown that architecture can have a great impact on our communities and contribute to the awareness that we are not alone. For their body of work realized and that of the future, Anne Lacaton, and Jean-Philippe Vassal are named the 2021 Pritzker Prize Laureates.
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