Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal win the 2021 Pritzker Prize

Building Up, Not Tearing Down

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal win the 2021 Pritzker Prize

Last month, political commentator Nathan Robinson took aim at contemporary architecture, which he finds ”boring, joyless, and/or ugly.“ Among the more offended examples he cited was 2021 Pritzker Prize Laureates Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal’s Grand Parc public housing renovation. (Courtesy Philippe Ruault)

French architects and educators Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have been named the winners of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize. The duo, principals of Lacaton & Vassal Architectes, are the 49th and 50th Pritzker Prize Laureates and the first French recipients of the prestigious award since 2008 when Jean Nouvel took home the architecture world’s top honor. In addition to Nouvel (and now Lacaton and Vassal), only one other French architect, Christian de Portzamparc, has won the Pritzker Prize since it was first awarded in 1979.

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal
Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal (Courtesy Laurent Chalet)

While Lacaton and Vassal are based in Paris, where they founded their eponymous practice in 1987, Lacaton is a native of Saint-Pardoux, in west-central France, while Vassal was born in Casablanca. The two first connected in the late 1970s while students at Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture et de Paysage de Bordeaux (ENSNAP Bordeaux) before embarking on divergent, early career paths, with Lacaton earning her Masters in Urban Planning from Bordeaux Montaigne University in 1984 and Vassal relocating to Niger, West Africa, to practice urban planning. It was in Niger’s capital city of Niamey that Lacaton and Vassal came together to complete their first joint project, a straw hut built from locally sourced materials. While modest, this collaboration sparked a design ethos that continues today—one that champions affordable and readily available building materials and avoids destroying existing buildings in favor of adapting and adding to them.

“Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing,” said Lacaton in a statement. “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.”

a man steps out into a large enclosed balcony space
Bigger, brighter, better views: A post-renovation flat at Grand Parc, a public housing complex in Bordeaux (Courtesy Philippe Ruault)

To date, Lacaton and Vassal have together completed over 30 projects across Europe and West Africa. While their collective work is diverse and includes private homes, public spaces, and educational and cultural institutions, the duo shares a commonality with other recent Pritzker Prize Laureates, including 2020 laureates Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Dublin-based Grafton Architects and 2016 laureate and current chair of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury, Chile’s Alejandro Aravena: Their best-known projects are in the realm of social housing. Specifically, these projects revolve around sparing timeworn public housing blocks from destruction and instead deploy inventive, relatively inexpensive architectural interventions that vastly improve the quality of life for the people living there.

“Our work is about solving constraints and problems, and finding spaces that can create uses, emotions and feelings, said Vassal. “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.”

a concrete university building in france
École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes, one of several academic buildings by Lacaton & Vassal Architectes (Courtesy Philippe Ruault)

Representative of this approach is La Tour Bois le Prêtre in Paris. Completed in 2011, the renovation project found the architects transforming a 1960s-era housing block by removing its original concrete facade and expanding the square footage of each of the 17-story building’s 96 units through the creation of private bioclimatic balconies—or “winter gardens”—that help draw fresh air and natural light into the previously dreary and more diminutive flats.

“Once constrained living rooms now extend into new terraces as flexible space, featuring large windows for unrestricted views of the city, thus reimagining not only the aesthetic of social housing, but also the intention and possibilities of such communities within the urban geography,” explained the official Pritzker Prize announcement.

A similar approach was taken with the 2017 transformation of three buildings at the Grand Parc housing development in Bordeaux. That thoughtful, demolition-eschewing overhaul, which nearly doubled the size of the 530 apartments without displacing residents, resulted in a “dramatic visual reinvention of the social housing complex.” The transformations of both La Tour Bois le Prêtre and Grand Parc were executed by Lacaton and Vassal in partnership with Frédéric Druot; Christophe Hutin also served as a collaborator on the latter project.

glass exterior of a student housing building in france
Ourcq-Juarès Student and Social Housing in Paris (Courtesy Philippe Ruault)

“We never see the existing as a problem. We look with positive eyes because there is an opportunity of doing more with what we already have,” explained Lacaton of giving old and oft-unloved buildings new life.

“We went to places where buildings would have been demolished and we met people, families who were attached to their housing, even if the situation was not the best. They were most often opposed to the demolition because they wished to stay in their neighborhood. It’s a question of kindness,” added Vassal.

The Latapie House, a single-family detached home in the Bordelais suburbs, was the first project, completed in 1993, that the still-young practice experimented with expanding the footprint of a living space by creating an on-the-cheap conservatory of sorts. In this instance, Lacaton and Vassal designed a simple shed-like dwelling with an east-facing, two-story addition composed of low-cost transparent polycarbonate panels at the rear. Like the winter gardens/balconies added to the facades of the aforementioned social housing projects, the “attached summer house” concept conserves energy and floods the entire home with natural light.

a family gathers on a large apartment balcony
The balcony at a 53-unit low-rise residential project in Saint-Nazaire, France (Courtesy Philippe Ruault)

Other notable projects by Lacaton and Vassal— all in France—include École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes (2009), the Cap Ferret House in Cap Ferret (1998)  a social housing project for Cité Manifeste in Mulhouse (2005), Pôle Universitaire de Sciences de Gestion in Bordeaux (2008), the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2013), and Ourcq-Jaurès student and social housing, also in Paris (2013). In progress are office, residential, and mixed-use projects, both new structures and the adaptive reuse of existing ones, in cities including Paris, Toulouse, Hamburg, and Anderlecht, Belgium.

Lacaton is an associate professor of Architecture and Design at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich and a visiting professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. Vassal is currently an associate professor at Germany’s Universität der Künste Berlin. Both have previously taught at a multitude of schools across Europe and, in the case of Lacaton, in the United States where she served as Design Critic in Architecture (2015) and the Kenzo Tange Visiting Chair in Architecture and Urban Planning (2011) at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and as Clarkson Chair at the University of Buffalo (2013).

a single-family home with a large two-story greenhouse extension
Latapie House in Floriac, France (Courtesy Philippe Ruault)

Together, Lacaton and Vassal have held a handful of visiting professorships and received a number of professional accolades and honors including the BDA Grand Prize (2020); Académie d’Architecture, Gold Medal (2016); the Daylight & Building Components Award from Villum Foundation and Velux Foundation (2011); the International Fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects (2009); the Grand Prix National d’Architecture, France (2008); and the Schelling Architecture Award (2006).

“This year, more than ever, we have felt that we are part of humankind as a whole,” said Aravena. “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.”

industrial interior of a cultural space
Palais de Tokyo in Paris (Courtesy Philippe Ruault)

Alongside Aravena, members of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury were Barry Bergdoll, curator, author, and Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University; Deborah Berke, architect and Dean of Yale School of Architecture; United States Supreme Court Justice and former jury chair Stephen Breyer; André Aranha Corrêa do Lago, an architectural critic and curator who also serves as the Brazilian Ambassador to India; Kazuyo Sejima, the 2010 Pritzker Prize Laureate alongside Ryue Nishizawa; Benedetta Tagliabue, architect and director of Spanish practice Miralles Tagliabue EMBT; Wang Shu, the 2012 Pritzker Prize Laureate, and Martha Thorne, dean of the IE School of Architecture & Design in Madrid and outgoing executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

In October of last year, it was announced that Thorne will step down from her executive director role later this month and be replaced with Paris-based curator, Manuela Lucá-Dazio, who also served on the 2021 jury in an advisory capacity. Following her departure, Thorne will remain on board as an advisor through the 2021 Pritzker Prize ceremony. As of this writing, the ceremony date and location have not been announced. In 2020, it was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, which could be the case again this year.