• Tour Bois le Prêtre 2
    Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, Paris, social housing transformation, Lacaton Vassal with Frédéric Druot, 2011. - photo by Philippe Ruault

This year, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, widely considered the discipline’s highest honor, was awarded to French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal. In 1987, the duo founded their office in Paris, but the genesis of the practice and the thinking that defines it began to coalesce somewhat earlier, first when they met in the late ‘70s as students at École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture et de Paysage de Bordeaux, and after that in Niger, where Vassal, who was born in Morocco, worked as an urban planner (Lacaton herself earned a master’s in urban planning from Université Bordeaux Montaigne). It was there, in West Africa, that Lacaton Vassal completed their first structure, a straw hut erected by the Niger River atop a sand dune that received the prevailing breezes, where at night one could just make out the twinkling lights of the capital city, Niamey. As in a fairytale, they built this little paillote in two days from local bushes, and saw it collapse in the wind within two years. The story goes that watching their creation come apart in the air, while being steeped in the culture and desert landscapes of Niger, with its barren beauty and resourceful yet generous people, etched an ethics in the minds of the young architects, and they vowed that they would never tear down what could be preserved, but instead reinforce and improve what already exists, using the simplest and most sustainable means at hand. “Niger,” Vassal is quoted as saying, “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.” This schooling has endured and blossomed. Over the span of three decades plus, Lacaton Vassal has put this directive, which has hardly changed, to work on a wide range of projects, including private and social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public and urban strategies, all of which exhibit their ethos of environmental responsibility, economical solutions, and care for the wellbeing of their buildings’ users. One recurring theme is the incorporation of greenhouse-like strategies and mobile planes to create layered spaces and microclimates within the architecture, deployed first in the Maison Latapie (1993) in Floirac, France, a low-budget house for a couple with two children, which posits two volumes within a light steel frame, one opaque and insulated, the other transparent, each mediated with a variety of operable panels that allow the tuning of the spaces for a range of climatic conditions as well as the desired level of privacy or connectivity. Lacaton Vassal along with Frédéric Druot took this layered, bioclimatic idea and scaled it up in their renovation and expansion of La Tour Bois-le-Prêtre (2011) in Paris, a 16-story, 96-unit housing project originally built in the 1960s that was scheduled for demolition. The architects showed that, for a fraction of the price it would cost to destroy the structure and build something new, the tower could be preserved and improved through removing the concrete facade and adding wide wintergarden-like terraces, separated from the existing units by sliding walls of double-paned glass, the modular construction of which was executed without displacing residents. Lacaton Vassal, Druot, and Christophe Hutin deployed the tactic again in the improvement of three buildings, comprising 530 apartments, at Grand Parc (2017) in Bordeaux, where, as with La Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, residents received more room, more daylight, and access to the outdoors, without having to move, while the very image of public housing received a makeover, changing this idea of home from something quite drab to accommodation that is positively delightful. The architects have also applied their “never demolish” tenet to cultural projects, perhaps most poetically in the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais (2013-2015), an institution that conserves, archives, and displays local collections of contemporary art, which acquired an old ship fabrication building at the port of Dunkerque, whose monumental, gabled, concrete-framed form the architects duplicated precisely in dimensions but oppositely in materiality, opting for a transparently clad, light steel frame positioned on the seaward side of the existing hall and containing the program of the FRAC, while leaving the existing shell empty, a house for spirits and flexible programming. The Pritzker jury specifically commended Lacaton Vassal for renewing the legacy of modernism by reviving modernist aspirations for improving the lives of normal people, particularly in the realm of urban housing, while updating their approach to address contemporary climatic and ecological concerns. I hope this view that architectural quality, environmental responsibility, and dedication to ethical society can be pursued and accomplished simultaneously will prove catching.

Leave a Comment