Pritzker Prize 2021: Who are Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillipe Vassal?

Sanjana Aggarwal

Writer at Oneistox

August 31

7.5 mins read

The jury for the Pritzker Prize 2021, the most prestigious honour in the field of architecture, believes that Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillipe Vassal have proposed an adjusted definition to the very profession of architecture.

We can all agree that architecture itself does not have a specific definition. So we were intrigued to find out how the French architects have been able to push the limits of a profession that is already astonishingly fluid.

If you are wondering the same, here’s an introduction about the life, works, and philosophies of the Pritzker Prize winner 2021!

A Second School of Architecture

Lacaton and Vassal met in the late 1970s during their architectural education in France. While they parted ways for further pursuits, Lacaton often visited Vassal in Niger, where he was practicing as an urban planner. This is where they learnt to appreciate the humility and beauty in making the most of limited resources. They were deeply inspired by how people were doing everything with nearly nothing, and regard their learnings in Niger as ‘a second school of architecture.’

They established their own firm in 1987, and since then they have completed over 30 projects spanning residential design, social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public space, and urban strategies.

[Read: Design Philosophies of Famous Architects]

The Anti-Starchitects

Often called the anti-starchitects, Lacaton and Vassal approach each project from a holistic lens, instead of merely doing what is expected of them as architects. Their interest majorly lies in restorative work on architectural and urban scales. It is not that they only work on projects that are intended for conservation, rather that their design approach rejects unnecessary rebuilding and demolition.

Their renovation of a social housing in Bordeaux provides each home with a winter balcony, increasing space and bringing ample natural light into the homes.

The duo describes demolition as “an act of violence,” and would rather preserve existing buildings and the life they contain than feed their own ego as creators. They believe in respecting what is already there, and only adding what is necessary to enhance the experience of space. Their design of living spaces is inspired by the lightness, transparency and natural aesthetic of traditional greenhouses- they describe it as the atmosphere and feeling they want to bring to their buildings.

Their approach to architecture may seem novel and exemplary, but what they truly want to achieve through their designs is fundamental. Their designs focus on providing generosity of space, natural light and proximity to nature. Lacaton describes their process as that of taking care of the user, the climate and the economy.

[Read: Why is Chris Precht One of the Most Popular Young Architects Today?]

Not Everything Needs Rebuilding

One of our most interesting insights about the way they operate is derived from a project that was never realised.

In the mid 1990s, they were commissioned to redesign a small, triangular plaza in a residential district in Bordeaux, France. True to their process, the architects studied the site and interviewed users before concluding in their project statement that there was absolutely no need for a design intervention. They suggested that the best plan for enhancing the public space was just better maintenance. “Embellishment has no place here. Quality, charm, life (already) exist.”

Generosity of Space

Dwellings must offer freedoms of usage, to generate possibilities for evolution, for interpretation and appropriation, providing as much extra space as programmed space, free for use, to promote relationships, to bring about pleasurable situations.

One of their first residential design projects, the Latapie House was completed on a modest budget. This was the first project where the architects applied greenhouse technologies to create an open, efficient and eco-friendly space.

They designed flexible spaces with ample natural light and ventilation. Retractable and transparent polycarbonate panels allowed for larger communal spaces that opened into the outdoors when required.

Flexibility of Space

The project consists of three tall storeys positioned at different heights from the ground level, connected by an external ramp. The aim of the project is to provide students with flexibility of use in each space, in order to promote a dynamic learning environment.

We always seek to build a space that makes nothing subject to it, that is nothing but pure freedom. Some may grasp this freedom and others might not. But it is given all the same.

The design of the École Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Nantes, exemplifies what Lacaton and Vassal want to emphasize when they talk about spatial generosity. The architects were able to provide an additional 29% of indoor space and 35% of usable outdoor space over the stipulated brief of the project.

As an education centre, the building contains various flexible and adaptable areas of different sizes and intentionally undefined functions.

Never Demolish, Always Add

The extended facade provided space for well-lit, generous balconies accompanying each home. This made the homes feel larger and more luxurious, even in a social housing project.

Every dwelling must have a private outside space, such as a balcony, a terrace, a winter garden, to allow the possibility of living outside, to move around, to be inside-outside. Any dwelling should have the same qualities as a villa.

Lacaton and Vassal began this project by rejecting the city’s plans to demolish the 96-unit structure originally built in the 1960s. They removed the original concrete facade and extended the footprint of the building, and enclosed it with a new structural framework. By doing this, they were able to create a feeling of openness within the originally cramped living rooms, and provide large windows with unrestricted views.

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The French duo has redefined the way we believe architecture can contribute to society. Their positive approach reinforces our hope in the future of socially equitable, economically feasible and environmentally conscious buildings.

The Pritzker Prize winners 2021 have reminded architects that the best way to build something special is to let go of the idea that only they can. Maybe everything doesn’t need to be built from scratch, some things just need to be looked at with a fresh set of eyes!

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Sanjana Aggarwal

Sanjana is a practising architect with a curiosity for knowledge beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture. She is constantly exploring new avenues as she finds it hard to settle on just one thing at a time! Interested in all things design, she would like her design career to be an exciting multidisciplinary journey.

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