As It Happens·Q&A

Architecture's top prize goes to a French duo who build without demolishing

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal met in the late 1970s at architecture school in Bordeaux, France. In 1987, they launched their studio, Lacaton & Vassal, in Paris. The French duo have designed numerous social housing projects across France, as well as public spaces, urban developments and academic institutions. 

'We cannot believe that a situation can be so bad, so desperate that the only solution is to demolish'

French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have won their field's highest honour, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, in part, for never destroying a building to create a new one. (Laurent Chalet/Pritzker Architecture Prize )

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It takes a great sense of art and technique for architects to build a space. And while a lot of their projects start with a blank canvas, from scratch, the winners of this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize have never had to tear down a building to create a new one. 

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal met in the late 1970s at architecture school in Bordeaux, France. In 1987, they launched their studio, Lacaton & Vassal, in Paris.

The French duo have designed numerous social housing projects across France, as well as public spaces, urban developments and academic institutions. 

According to this year's Pritzker Prize jury, Lacaton & Vassal have "defined an architectural approach that renews the legacy of modernism."

"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," the jury said in a written statement about the win. "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 esthetic as in its ethics."

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about their work. Here is an excerpt from that conversation.

Anne, I want to start with you … you got this prize for reinventing buildings and seeing their potential.... What project are you most proud of?

Anne: During the last 30 years, we really like all the buildings that we have realized because we took time to do them. We took care to do them.

There is, of course, this house that we did in the forest almost 25 years ago. And we did this house without cutting any trees on the side. And this was very important to keep the richness of the place. 

But even more now, what we are very proud of is the project of transformation of the modern housing buildings. Like the housing tower in Paris or Cité du Grand Parc in Bordeaux, where we transformed and [extended] 530 dwellings. We gave [them] more space, more light. [They were] dwellings from the '70s and we did all this ... without moving the inhabitants and with no increase of the rent.

In 2016, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal renovated a 1960s apartment block at Cité du Grand Parc in Bordeaux, France. In an effort to create decent social housing, the architects refurbished the space with winter gardens, bringing in more sunlight, air and views. (Philippe Ruault/Lacaton & Vassal)

That's what I was going to ask you, Anne, because it's beautiful what you did, in transforming those buildings, but nobody had to move during the entire reconstruction.

Anne: It's very important that we consider that in those existing buildings, dwellings, it's clear that they need to be upgraded because they have already 50 years. But for the inhabitants inside, it's a home. And this is essential. It's a place of their daily life ... so why should we force people to leave their homes, when it's totally possible to [be] careful and to do things differently? So for us, it's just a matter of attention, of will, of method, and clearly it's the work of an architect.

Jean-Philippe, is there a project in particular that you take great pride in?

Jean Philippe: No, I think for each one, it is a new story ... and at the beginning of all these stories, it's a question of love.

We have to try to see behind the needs of the people, or the users. We have to reach the dreams and the wishes, the things that often they don't say.... It is to try to give people these spaces for freedom, for spaces that are not only functional, but spaces that are free. 

When we go a few years after, and when we see what the people have done with the spaces, we are really happy.

And so for you, it's not finished until the people actually put their own touch, their own shape on it. Is that right?

Jean-Philippe: Certainly — because the architecture doesn't exist if there is no life inside.

In 1998, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal created Cap Ferret House in Arcachon Bat, on the southwest coast of France. Designed to preserve as much of the building's surroundings as possible, it includes 46 pine trees, some of which are embedded within the walls. (Philippe Ruault/Lacaton & Vassal)

Jean-Philippe, but is there any time when ... your commission is to transform a building — and the building is just ugly? Do you ever have the temptation just to take it down and start again?

Jean-Philippe: Is it really ugly? No. 

First, we have to go inside to meet the people, to listen to what they do. Why do they like to be here? [Who] are their neighbours? And it shows that they have a lot of problems. But then starting from this richness inside, we have to see how we can add new things, or we can say, what is missing. 

For example ... [if] we have small windows, we enlarge the windows and we create a space in front of the windows like a garden. Then these flats become a sort of villa. Villa in the city. And without disturbing the people ... life very delicately transforms. 

Anne, is there a time when you see a building that is perhaps unstable, unsafe, decrepit, that most people would say just screams to be demolished? What do you see? 

Anne: Well, we try to see first what is good in this situation, because we cannot believe that a situation can be so bad, so desperate that the only solution is to demolish. For us, the demolition is the biggest mistake and the biggest waste.

In all the projects that we have done ... we never found a situation that was so bad in terms of stability or that demolition was the only solution. And especially the demolition today is much more applied to modern architecture of the '60s and '70s, which mostly is wood structures, but it just needs to be carefully upgraded. 

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal built Latapie House in Floirac, France in 1993. Made for a young family with a low budget, the home is composed of a modular rectangular volume with an adjustable metal frame that enables the house to change according to the need for light, transparency, intimacy, protection and ventilation. Polycarbonate sheeting creates a conservatory-like space in the backyard. (Philippe Ruault/Lacaton & Vassal)

There is a tendency now to tear down a lot of buildings. Houses are coming down, entire blocks are coming down, to build condo developments. There is almost a frenzy because of the need for housing and, well, there's a lot of money in there. This prize gives you an opportunity to perhaps inspire architects. What would you say to them about what you've learnt over these decades?

Jean-Philippe: I think today there is a sort of contradiction between some words. Everyone is talking about affordability. Everyone is talking about sustainability, ecology, economy. But [at] the same time, when we see these kinds of demolitions, it's totally the contrary. So we really believe that today we need to have another approach to the city…. We must start with architecture, and then urbanism will follow.

And by the way, working with economy, sustainability and affordability, it opens the possibility to have ambition. When we demolish, we lose. We have one and we lose one. And then probably we have to rebuild one. So at the end, we have only one. But when we keep it, [it] means that we have one and we add 50 per cent ... we just pay for 50 per cent more. And at the end we have more than demolishing and rebuilding. So I think it's this point of view of the economy of the city [that] is absolutely important because it gives the possibility to have ambition in the quality of life we can give to the inhabitants. 

Anne: And to do it for everyone, because it's mostly when there are demolitions in the city, it's replaced by a higher standard. And step by step, the city is excluding more and more of its inhabitants, the middle class and the low incomes. [There] should be a stronger will from the municipalities to try to keep this existing and to improve it in the best way instead of demolition. Then that [will] radically [change] the sociology inside the cities.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.