Retrofitting and Wellbeing are Key for 2021’s Pritzker Winners
The two winning architects are recognised for revitalising public housing with a creative approach to sustainable design
The two are known for their focus on revitalising low-income housing complexes, choosing to modify and improve structures rather than demolish and rebuild. In 2017, for example, Lacaton and Vassal were hired to redesign a large concrete housing estate, Grand Parc in Bordeaux, France. The residents of the three blocks wanted larger flats, but didn’t want to move out during construction.
The duo, along with architects Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin, devised a solution to add a system of outdoor terraces over the existing structure that extended the footprint of the living rooms by adding spacious balconies with sliding glass doors. Some of the flats doubled in size. The buildings’ lifts and plumbing were also modernised, all without displacing any of the residents during construction. The project cost was one-third of the cost of demolishing and building new.
“Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing,” Lacaton said in a press statement. “The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short-term. It’s 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.”
French-born Lacaton and Moroccan-born Vassal met in the late 1970s while studying architecture at the National School of Higher Studies of Architecture and Landscape Architecture in Bordeaux. Both went on to focus on urban planning.
Vassal briefly relocated to Niger, where Lacaton often visited him. The beauty of the desert landscapes juxtaposed with the severely limited resources of the population heavily influenced both architects’ life work. “Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the people are so incredible, so generous, doing nearly everything with nothing, finding resources all the time, but with optimism, full of poetry and inventiveness. It was really a second school of architecture,” Vassal said in the statement.
In 1987, they established the firm Lacaton & Vassal in Paris, where they continue to work and reside.
Lacaton is an associate professor of architecture and design at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and a visiting professor at Polytechnic University of Madrid, Master in Housing.
Vassal is an associate professor at Berlin University of the Arts.
Here’s a look at one of the terraces added at Grand Parc. Sliding glass doors give residents flexible space that can be used for a “winter garden” or other applications.
Inexpensively increasing living space with balconies is a signature design move of Lacaton and Vassal. “There are too many demolitions of existing buildings that are not old, that still have a life in front of them, that are not out of use,” Lacaton told The New York Times. “We think that’s too big a waste of materials. If we observe carefully, if we look at things with fresh eyes, there’s always something positive to take from an existing situation.”
Here, a resident used the terrace addition to create a sun-drenched dining area off the living room. “Good architecture is open – open to life, open to enhance the freedom of anyone, where anyone can do what they need to do,” Lacaton said. “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.”
On the back of the Latapie House, the architects designed an addition with retractable and transparent polycarbonate panels that create a greenhouse of sorts that increases year-round living space.
“From very early on, we studied the greenhouses of botanic gardens, with their impressive fragile plants, the beautiful light and transparency, and their ability to simply transform the outdoor climate,” Lacaton told the prize committee. “It’s an atmosphere and a feeling, and we were interested in bringing that delicacy to architecture.”
Before Grand Parc, Lacaton, Vassal and Druot applied a similar terrace strategy to transform another public housing project, Tour Bois le Prêtre in Paris, shown here. They removed the original concrete facade and extended the footprint by adding balconies with windows that offer unobstructed views of the city.
“Good architecture is a space where something special happens, where you want to smile just because you’re there,” Vassal said in the statement. “It’s also a relationship with the city, a relationship with what you see and a place where you are happy, where people feel well and comfortable – a space that gives emotions and pleasures.”
Let Houzz find the best pros for you
Rather than demolish a postwar shipbuilding structure at a waterfront redevelopment project, Lacaton and Vassal chose to add a near-identical building right next to it that houses galleries, offices and storage for the regional collections of contemporary art.
Transparent, prefabricated materials allow views of the old building, left, from inside the new building.
“This year, more than ever, we have felt that we are part of humankind as a whole,” said Alejandro Aravena, chair of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury and the 2016 prize laureate. “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.”
The Pritzker Prize is awarded every year to a living architect or architects for significant achievement in the field. It was established by the Pritzker family of Chicago through its Hyatt Foundation in 1979. The award consists of $100,000 (around £71,737) and a bronze medallion.
See more of Lacaton and Vassal’s work below.