Architecture – The Pritzker Architecture Prize often goes to archistars building brand-new shiny and flamboyant icons, but this year it was different. Indeed, the architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel prize went to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal of Lacaton and Vassal, a Paris-based studio with over 30 years of career and known for refurbishing and implementing affordable housing, cultural and academic institutions, public spaces, and urban developments, all with a human-based vision and a humble attitude, and far from the hype.
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Often using translucent, recycled and inexpensive materials, the studio brings forward sustainability by preserving, expanding and upgrading preexisting structures. Their mission is to put people first, conceiving architecture as a to able to benefit the individual socially, ecologically and economically, aiding the evolution of a city.
“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.” Says Anne Lacaton.
For the House in Bordeaux, 1999, the studio has transformed a former biscuit factory composed of a sequence of contrasting rooms into a residential home with a garage. The centre of the house is connected to the outside with a transparent polycarbonate sheeting on the roof that introduces natural light and outward views.
For the Latapie House – Floirac, France 1993 – the studio increased living space exponentially and inexpensively by installing, for their first time, a winter garden that allowed a larger residence for a modest budget which enabled inhabitants to conserve energy and access nature during all seasons. The east-facing retractable and transparent polycarbonate panels on the home’s backside allow natural light to illuminate the entire dwelling.
On a grander scale, Lacaton and Vassal teamed up with Frédéric Druot to transform La Tour Bois le Prêtre – Paris, France 2011 -, a 17-story, 96-unit city housing project originally built in the early 1960s. The architects increased the interior square footage of every unit by removing the original concrete façade and extending the building’s footprint to form bioclimatic balconies.
Once constrained living rooms now extend into new terraces as flexible space, features large windows for unrestricted views of the city, thus reimagining the aesthetic of social housing and the intention and possibilities of such communities within the urban geography.
This framework was similarly applied to the transformation of three buildings G, H and I, consisting of 530 apartments, at Grand Parc – Bordeaux, France 2017 -, with Druot and Christophe Hutin. The transformation resulted in a dramatic visual reinvention of the social housing complex, the modernization of elevators and plumbing, and the generous expansion of all units, some nearly doubling in size, without the displacement of any residents and for one-third of the cost of demolishing and building new.
Adhering to a precept of “never demolish,” Lacaton and Vassal restored and ‘doubled’ a postwar shipbuilding facility at the shoreline of a waterfront redevelopment project in Dunkirk to create the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais art gallery. Rather than filling and losing the original structure’s impressive void, they chose to erect a second building, identical in shape and size to the first. They used transparent, prefabricated materials, resulting in unhindered views through the new to the old.
The original landmark was designated for public programming, while the newer structure now houses galleries, offices and storage for the regional collections of contemporary art. The buildings can function independently or collaboratively and are connected by an internal street in the void between the two structures.
Much of the studio’s work includes new buildings such as the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes, 2009. To accommodate the growing student body, Lacaton and Vassal managed almost to double the space outlined in the brief within budget. Located at the Loire Riverbank, this large-scale, double-height, three-story building features a concrete and steel frame encased in retractable polycarbonate walls and sliding doors.
Areas of various sizes exist throughout, and all spaces are deliberately unprescribed and adaptable. An auditorium can open to extend into the street, and high ceilings create generous spaces necessary for construction workshops. Even the wide, sloping ramp that connects the ground to the 2,000 square meters functional rooftop is intended as a flexible learning and gathering space.
Their most recent transformation of Palais de Tokyo in Paris, 2012, after a restoration of the space more than a decade earlier, increased the museum by 20,000 square meters, in part by creating new underground space, and assuring that every area of the building is reserved for the user experience.
Retreating from white cube galleries and guided pathways that are characteristic of many contemporary art museums, the architects instead created voluminous, unfinished spaces. These spaces allow artists and curators to create boundless exhibitions for all mediums of art within a range of physical environments, from dark and cavernous to transparent and sunlit, that encourage visitors to linger.
All photos by Philippe Ruault unless stated – Courtesy of Pritzker Prize.