Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal’s ability to upgrade and transform dated social housing has been recognised with their selection as the Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureates for 2021.
The French duo were awarded architecture’s highest honour for adhering to the precept of “never demolish” to modernise a multitude of public buildings, private residences, cultural spaces, academic institutions and other projects across Europe and West Africa.
Lacaton & Vassal recently transformed the 1960s La Tour Bois le Prêtre, a 17-storey social housing tower, by removing the original concrete façade to extend its footprint.
The once-constrained living rooms in the building became flexible space with large windows, unrestricted views of the city and all-season balconies with retractable, transparent, polycarbonate panels.
This same method was used on three social housing buildings at Grand Parc in Bordeaux with 530 apartments, with fellow French architects Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin.
The design expanded all the units in the building, some nearly doubling in size, without the displacement of any residents and for a third of the cost of demolishing and building new.
Lacaton said by prioritising the enrichment of human life through a lens of generosity and freedom of use, they were able to benefit the individual socially, ecologically and economically, aiding the evolution of a city.
“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.”
Pritzker Architecture Prize jury chair Alejandro Aravena said 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,” Aravena said.
“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.”
Vassal said their work was 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,” Vassal said.
The Pritzker Architecture Prize jury noted Lacaton & Vassal created architecture that was as strong in its forms as in its convictions, while being as transparent in its aesthetic as in its ethics.
“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,” the jury said.
The Pritzker Architecture Prize winners have also extended the life of Paris' Palais de Tokyo, reputed to be the biggest non-collecting contemporary art museum in Europe that was inaugurated in 1937, increasing its space by 20,000 sq m by creating underground space and using pathways.
For another cultural project, the duo designed a structure identical to a post-war shipbuilding facility Atelier de Préfabrication to create a gallery next to the public programming building.
Lacaton & Vassal established their firm in 1987 and are the 49th and 50th laureates of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Last year Ireland-based Grafton Architects won the prize, led by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.