At the moment, good news is, without doubt, in short supply. This being the case, news of this year’s Pritzker prizewinner is particularly gratifying. The award has gone to French architecture duo Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal, who do not exactly conform to the image of star architects active on the world stage. After all, the Pritzker Prize does tend to call to mind such famous protagonists as Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid. It should be mentioned, however, that the jury has occasionally surprised us by opting for a regional detour – for instance, with its choice of the Spanish firm RCR Arquitectes (2017), with Wang Shu (2012), a Chinese outfit, and Australian Glenn Murcutt (2002). In recent years, it has to be said, they appear to have been suffering from a general lack of inspiration, as the nomination of recognize doyens has shown, obvious ones being established names such as Arata Isozaki (2019), Balkrishna Doshi (2018) and Frei Otto (2015). Admittedly, in Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara (2020), the accolade went to a a duo of women, and with Chilean Alejandro Aravena (2016), the distinction was awarded to a young architect with an agenda that is sometimes socially aware. Nevertheless, the Pritzker Prize has not entirely succeeded in reflecting the social paradigm shift of recent years, a trend that has unavoidably impacted on Architecture itself.
So now with Lacaton & Vassal, the jury could not have made a better choice. Just what is it, then, that characterizes the architecture of this French duo? The best way to answer this question is with a project. When, in 1996, the architects were commissioned by the City of Bordeaux to brighten up Place Léon Aucoc, they decided, after analyzing the existing situation, to undertake radical measures, proposing to invest the relevant monies in upkeep and repairs. The reasoning behind this was as simple as it was obvious – the square worked the way it already was. This approach to the kind of architecture that takes its lead from everyday life is also what typifies the practice’s construction projects. One good example is the transformation of the Tour Bois le Prêtre, a welfare housing project in Paris, where the architects collaborated with Fréderic Druot to devise an alternative to demolishing a 17-story high-rise dating from the 1960s. Among other things, they came up with the idea of conservatories combined with corresponding balconies on the façade. This not only significantly expanded the residents’ living space, it was also considerably cheaper than a new building. Other projects followed, such as, for instance, their makeover of the large residential blocks in the Quartier du Grand Parc in Bordeaux, where they have, once again, brought light and air to a subsidized housing project, along with Fréderic Druot and Christophe Hutin.
The history of the way that their ideas develop stretches all the way back to the 1980s when, after graduating in Architecture and completing a 10-months alternative to military service, Jean-Philippe Vassal spent several years in Niger, West Africa. It was there that he and his partner, Anne Lacaton, discovered the influence exerted by the extreme local climatic conditions on the region’s architecture and the two decided to analyze the dwelling forms favored by the Tuareg nomads. The insights they gained have continued to shape the duo’s approach to architecture right up to the present day and are reflected in one of their first projects – Latapie House in Bordeaux. Here, again, they have relied on a large conservatory clad with polycarbonate slabs – a space that can be utilized as its owners see fit. The conservatory abuts directly onto the apartment building, which, with its façade made of glass-fiber concrete panels, takes the shape of a wooden box. Folding doors mean that the building’s long sides can be opened up completely, with the conservatory representing a type of greenhouse you can live in. It zones the climatic transition between inside and outside and is, like the apartment building, made of low-cost materials, something which makes for considerably more living space than a conventional building.
The fact that their ideas can not only be implemented in welfare housing projects is demonstrated by their plans for converting and extending the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais art center in Dunkirk. Here, between 2015 and 2017, the architects renovated an old overhaul hangar and added to it an architectural doppelgänger. Prefabricated industrial parts such as polycarbonate slabs were used for the new building’s façade, thus presenting the edifice, with its six stories and 9,000 m² of usable space, as a kind of hothouse for art. Further projects, such as the conversion of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the école nationale supérieure d'architecture in Nantes and various other residential buildings, demonstrate that nowadays the firm’s concepts have become socially acceptable. And not only that – for the upcoming generation of French architecture practices, such as Bruther, Muoto, BAST and NP2F, Lacaton & Vassal represent parents of a sort, the kind of office that has paved the way for a new kind of everyday architecture.