Awarded the Pritzker Prize 2021 French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal revive modernist principles with a unique approach –
The choice of Lacaton & Vassal as winners of the Pritzker Prize 2021 is a sign of changing values in architecture and city planning. The French duo has become famous for their unique approach in which nothing gets demolished. Their renovation project of the Grand Parc housing estate in Bordeaux exemplifies this method on a grand scale, in which 530 apartments were extended with big glassed-in balconies and new facades. It gained lots of interest and the architects received the EU Mies Award in 2019 for that project.
Lacaton & Vassal’s work is underpinned by the values of the modern movement: open-plan, lack of ornament, industrial materials and lots of daylight. With the Grand Parc renovation, they literally subvert Charles Jencks’ provocative slogan of the death of modern architecture (dated July 15, 1972, with the demolition of the Pruit-Igoe housing scheme in the US): instead of blowing up a housing block, they carefully reorganise it. After two other projects in France, where social housing has been reimagined with inventive ideas, Lacaton & Vassal show that it’s possible to find creative and sustainable solutions. Their approach has inspired architects everywhere to implement similar restorative strategies. Hopefully city planners and contractors will also realise that its possible to create something better with simple improvements.
Since their very first project, the Latapie House in France completed in 1993, Lacaton & Vassal have been experimenting with ideas and materials adopted from industrial construction. That private residence was built with a small budget, but succeeded in providing more space and daylight for less money by using cheaper materials and inventive solutions. The house is like a greenhouse transformed for dwelling, deconstructing conceptions about how houses can and should be conceived. The polycarbonate panels are inexpensive while conjuring alternative models for spatial flexibility. This aesthetic strategy, where low-cost materials can be used in poetic ways, is something the architects saw in Africa. Vassal worked in urban planning in Niger, where Lacaton went to see him before setting up their own practice in 1987 in Paris.
Their work with cultural institutions follows the same ethos. Completed in 2002, the restoration of Palais Tokyo in Paris stripped the gallery spaces inside the 1930s Palais Chaillot building of all surplus layers accumulated over the years into its bare structural bones. Rough concrete surfaces and vast open galleries provide a backdrop for contemporary arts, similar to those spaces where artists work, although on a much grander scale. The architecture school in Nantes was also imagined as an experimental building, where students would be able to work in massive unheated studios and create real scale models. In that project Lacaton & Vassal provided twice as much space for the initial budget, which first worried the school. However, it has become a new paradigm for educational spaces, in which students are active participants in its operations and social activities.
The industrial feel that underpins the architecture of Lacaton & Vassal derives from both the materials and the minimalistic structural systems. They aim for simplicity, which was one of the principles of modernist architecture: simple forms to balance complexity in contemporary life, as Vassal summarizes in the Pritzker Prize press release. In a recent d’a interview Vassal explains that they have always been fascinated by the rigorous structural systems and the minimal amount of materials that define Mies van der Rohe’ architecture. Indeed you can see this ideological link, although for a very different outcome – how Miesien office blocks can inspire social housing and how the free-flowing space of a marble pavilion can also be adopted in a low-cost approach. What is so inspirational about their work, is the reinvention and refinement of previous strategies.