2021 Pritzker Prize to Lacaton & Vassal

John Hill
16. March 2021
Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal (Photo: Laurent Chalet)

French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have been selected as laureates of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the award given out by the Hyatt Foundation and widely considered "architecture’s highest honor."

In today's announcement by Tom Pritzker, chairman of The Hyatt Foundation, Lacaton & Vassal's "reverence for pre-existing structures" is singled out: "Lacaton and Vassal reexamine sustainability [...] conceiving projects by first taking inventory of what already exists." The duo's attention to existing buildings and spaces has already garnered them important prizes, including the 2019 EU Mies Award for the Transformation of 530 Dwellings - Grand Parc Bordeaux by Lacaton & Vassal with Frédéric Druot Architecture and Christophe Hutin Architecture. That project added 4-meter-deep "winter gardens" to the facades of social housing buildings from the 1960s; the project was amazingly carried out without displacing residents during construction and without any rent increases. 

Transformation of G, H, I Buildings, Grand Parc, 530 Units, Social Housing (with Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin), Bordeaux, France, 2017 (Photo: Philippe Ruault)

"Never demolish, always transform" is the most important phrase for the architects. Anne Lacaton is direct in describing the tenet, as quoted in today's announcement: "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." One of the most innovative projects in this vein is Léon Aucoc Plaza, completed in Bordeaux in 1996, nine years after the duo set up their practice in Paris. The architects came to the conclusion that "the square is already beautiful," so instead of proposing design changes they "proposed doing nothing apart from some simple and rapid maintenance works [...] of a kind to improve use of the square and to satisfy the locals."

Transformation of G, H, I Buildings, Grand Parc, 530 Units, Social Housing (with Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin), Bordeaux, France, 2017 (Photo: Philippe Ruault)
FRAC Nord- Pas de Calais, Dunkerque, France, 2013 (Photo: Philippe Ruault)

Be it social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public spaces, or urban developments, many of Lacaton & Vassal's projects build upon the basis of Léon Aucoc Plaza: examining the existing buildings and spaces that are part of their commissions and determining how they can be best refurbished, reused and built upon. In the case of FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais, the architects' appreciation of the impressive space of the postwar shipbuilding facility on a waterfront site in Dunkerque led them to propose a contemporary "twin" of the building for FRAC's new galleries, offices, and storage, linking them via an internal street slotted between old and new. Other "never demolish, always transform" projects include the Transformation of 100 Units, Tour Bois le Prêtre, Social Housing (with Frédéric Druot), a clear predecessor to Grand Parc Bordeaux; and the Palais de Tokyo, a multi-phase restoration and expansion of the "site for contemporary creation" in Paris.

FRAC Nord- Pas de Calais, Dunkerque, France, 2013 (Photo: Philippe Ruault)

The citation from this year's jury, chaired by 2016 Pritzker laureate Alejandro Aravena, articulates the meaning of Lacaton & Vassal's "never demolish" approach: "Not only have they defined an architectural approach that renews the legacy of modernism, but they have also proposed an adjusted definition of the very profession of architecture. 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. They accomplish this through a powerful sense of space and materials that creates architecture as strong in its forms as in its convictions, as transparent in its aesthetic as in its ethics."

Site for Contemporary Creation, Phase 2, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France, 2012 (Photo: Philippe Ruault)
École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes, Nantes, France, 2009 (Photo: Philippe Ruault)

Curiously, just as their new building at FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais mimics the existing building, Lacaton & Vassal's projects for new buildings often resemble their transformations. For example, the flexible underground spaces of the second phase of Palais de Tokyo, pictured above, find echoes in the earlier École Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nantes, where exterior ramps linking the building's three floors have an informal articulation aligned with envisioning them as spaces for flexible learning and gathering. Likewise, the transparent exteriors of the social-housing transformations are also evident in the recent mixed-use building located in the Chêne-Bourg municipality of Switzerland's Geneva canton, where both offices and residences are given winter gardens at the building perimeter.

Residential and Office Building, Chêne-Bourg, Geneva, Switzerland, 2020 (Photo: Philippe Ruault)
Residential and Office Building, Chêne-Bourg, Geneva, Switzerland, 2020 (Photo: Philippe Ruault)

The last paragraph of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize jury citation sums up well the appeal and significance of Lacaton & Vassal's work: "Through their belief that architecture is more than just buildings, through the issues they address and the proposals they realize, through forging a responsible and sometimes solitary path illustrating that the best architecture can be humble and is always thoughtful, respectful, and responsible, they have shown that architecture can have a great impact on our communities and contribute to the awareness that we are not alone. For their body of work realized and that of the future, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal are named the 2021 Pritzker Prize Laureates."

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Pritzker Prize laureates, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, were given the award in October via video rather than with a typical in-person ceremony held at a site of architectural and historical importance. In turn, it's too early to know what form this year's ceremony will take. "Details pertaining to the 43rd Pritzker Prize ceremony honoring 2021 Laureates, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, will be announced this summer," per today's announcement.

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