March 19, 2021 8:50:12 am
It all began with a straw hut in Niger, West Africa. Anne Lacaton had moved there to practice urban planning after her formal architectural education in France. Jean-Philippe Vassal, whom she met during the training, would often visit her in Niger. There, they saw how the country’s desert landscape was filled with architecture that made the most of resources, with poetic innovation.
For them it was the second school of architecture. From the people, they would learn what generosity of spaces meant, caring for the climate and resources at hand, why economy was important and architecture had to be affordable. They had built a straw hut with bush branches that were easily available and stood through two years or wind and sun.
The duo knew then that demolition would never be a choice, they would have to reinvent and transform spaces, with simplicity and available resources.
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Their Paris firm, Lacaton & Vassal, which started in 1987, has since then worked on these principles, be it social and private housing, public buildings, and educational and cultural institutions. With over 30 projects spread across Europe and West Africa, they are the 2021 Pritzker Laureates, who have been awarded “Architecture’s Nobel Prize” for their work in retrofitting buildings and changing social housing from inside out.
Their work and philosophy
One of their first projects was a private house in Bordeaux, France, completed in 1993. The Latapie House, for a couple and their two children, had to be expanded on a minimal budget.
The architects opened up the space in front of the house, covering one side with opaque fibre-cement sheets and the other on the garden side with transparent polycarbonate sheeting, to form a conservatory. Meanwhile, they gave the facades movable panels which could open up to the sun and seasons, making room for light, intimacy, ventilation to fill the collapsible spaces within.
In a talk at UCLA in 2015, Lacaton said, “Our design philosophy is to make buildings that are beautiful, where people feel good in them, where the light inside is beautiful and the air pleasant, where exchange with the outside seems easy and gentle, and where life is simple and the sensations unexpected.”
Another such project is the La Tour Bois le Prêtre in Paris. This 1960s housing block was renovated in 2011 by Lacaton and Vassal with their team, which gave the 96 families “winter gardens”. Their strategy was to remove the original façade and expand the area of the 17-storey building, thus giving residents fresh air and light.
Their primary motto is to not demolish, instead it to make additions that honour the present and yet use history as an inventory to adapt and adopt from.
In a recent interview, the duo said, “When we start on a site, we never think in terms of form. Instead, we think of the project from the inside. We keen observe what we have and what to do with it… we are not looking from top down but from inside out.” With deep respect in those living in these homes, the architects are very aware of the memories people carry with them.
In their 2017 project — the Grand Parc housing development in Bordeaux — they made generous extensions in the units for nearly 530 families, without making interventions in structure, stairs or the floors.
While many of their projects are in France, including École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes (2009), the Cap Ferret House in Cap Ferret (1998), a social housing project for Cité Manifeste in Mulhouse (2005), Pôle Universitaire de Sciences de Gestion in Bordeaux (2008), and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2013), they have offices, residences, and mixed-use projects in Toulouse, Hamburg, and Anderlecht, Belgium.
As academics, they are also very conscious of planning public space. Their approach to architecture also spills into their ideas or urban planning. For them, public space in cities is about connections. A master plan for a city always works from the larger to the smaller scale. They turn that idea on its head by suggesting that planners should start from the living room, “because you first live for yourself, then your community, then the public”.
Their incremental approach was best seen in the town square project initiated by the Bordeaux City Council in 1996. The triangular patch bordered by trees already appeared beautiful to Lacaton (66) and Vassal (67). When they spoke to the residents, they too didn’t want any embellishments that would ruin the feel of the place. So finally, the architects did nothing except replace the gravel, clean the square, trim the lime trees and modify the traffic.
What the Pritzker jury has to say
Headed by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, the jury see in their work, “a commitment to restorative architecture, at this at once technological, innovative, and ecologically responsive and can be pursued without nostalgia.” They felt that the architect of Lacaton and Vassal is more than just buildings, and that best architecture is always “thoughtful, respectful and responsible”.