2021 Pritzker Prize Goes To French Architects Who ‘Work With Kindness’

Philippe Ruault

Winter gardens and balconies were added to expand living space in social buildings in Bordeaux in 2017.

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, this year’s winners of the most prestigious award in architecture, are as surprised as anyone else.

“Of course it’s very pleasant, and we are very pleased,” Lacaton marveled in a Zoom call with NPR. She and her partner, both wearing black, smiled broadly from the screen behind their blocky eyeglasses.

Putting aside their choice in eyewear, Lacaton and Vassal could not be more different from an earlier generation of Pritzker “starchitects,” known for their signature styles, statement skyscrapers and flamboyant follies. Instead, the two apply a credo: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse!” to their work on old urban buildings. That includes dilapidated public housing (or “social housing” as it is known in France). Designs by Lacaton and Vassal have focused on replenishing low-income housing complexes, aesthetically and functionally, while respecting — rather than displacing — the tenants who live there.

“Buildings are beautiful when people feel well in them,” Lacaton explained in a 2017 lecture at the Architectural League of New York. “When the light inside is beautiful and the air is pleasant. When the exchange with the outside seems easy and gentle, and when uses and sensations are unexpected.”

Vassal added, “There’s a lot of violence in architecture and urbanism. We try to be precise. We try to work with kindness.”

Lacaton and Vassal met as idealistic architecture students in the late 1970s at a prestigious architecture school in Bordeaux. Vassal found work as an urban planner in West Africa. When Lacaton visited him in Niger, the two began building simple projects together that reflected their commitment to sustainability while extending space.

Their approach means never tearing down buildings to implement their own grand visions. When Lacaton and Vassal were asked to redesign a particularly large and hideous public housing bloc in Bordeaux in 2017, the residents told them they did not want to move, even temporarily, but they wanted bigger units. The solution, devised with fellow architects Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin, was to encase the building in large outdoor terraces, adding sliding glass doors to each unit, and remaking the exterior from drab concrete to something gleaming, modern and alive. Suddenly, everyone had roomy outdoor space, some of which was enclosed to be used during the winter as “winter gardens.”

“So, spaces where people can get sun and light and spend time with family, but it’s also open to neighbors,” says Columbia University architecture professor Mabel O. Wilson. She paid Lacaton and Vassal the ultimate compliment: “I would love to live in one of their apartments, in one of the buildings that they’ve designed.”

The firm’s approach of cost-effective, creative readaption could be a model for urban planning in the U.S., Wilson says, where demolition’s been seen as a solution to deteriorating public housing in such cities as Chicago and St. Louis. “And granted, there’s a host of other issues as to why that happened,” she says. “It’s not the building, it’s the absence of social services and lack of repair to buildings that made living in public housing untenable for residents.”

Lacaton and Vassal started their firm in Paris in 1987. Together, they’ve transformed numerous residential complexes, primarily in France, as well as the School of Architecture in Nantes, the Polyvalent Theater in Lille and a hulking exhibition center in Dunkirk, where they chose to essentially duplicate a giant old warehouse, rather than destroy it.

Wilson says the ethos exemplified by Lacaton and Vassal thrills her students at Columbia University. Many young designers confronting the undeniably capitalist realities of climate change and gentrification find the approach of the two more compelling than fading mythologies of architects as towering geniuses of individualism, says architecture writer and designer Antonio Pacheco.

“You know the first person to win the Pritzker was Philip Johnson in 1979,” he points out. “At that point, Johnson was basically at the height of his career. And now, you might think Johnson’s at the lowest point of his career.”

Johnson is known for the Seagram Building in Manhattan and his famous Glass House. He died in 2005. But Johnson’s been in the news recently, after Harvard University and the Museum of Modern Art removed or covered Johnson’s name from public signage because of the architect’s history of racism and fascist affiliations.

“I’m surprised the Pritzker didn’t take this is an opportunity to highlight that legacy with a different choice this year, that would speak to an awareness this conversation was happening,” Pacheco said. He’s referring to the fact that the Pritzker has yet to go to a Black architect. “And I think that the other blind spot that the Pritzker continues to reinforce is this focus on the singular architect, or the two partners.”

Which, he points out, renders invisible the creative teamwork and labor that makes ambitious projects possible. Lacaton and Vassal may be something of a safe choice, Pachecho says, but their work deserves celebration.

“The work of Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal reflects architecture’s democratic spirit,” the Pritzker jury citation reads. “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.”

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