The Pritzker Prize, the highest distinction in the world of architecture, was awarded Tuesday to the French Jean-Philippe Vassal and the French Anne Lacaton, apostles of an architecture dedicated to the well-being of the greatest number, combining generous spaces with modest budgets and ecological techniques.
“Their work, which responds to the climatic and ecological emergencies of our time as much as to its social emergencies, in particular in the field of urban housing, gives new vigor to the modernist hopes and dreams of improving the life of the greatest number ”, estimated the jury of this price founded in 1979, endowed with 100,000 dollars of reward.
“They achieve this thanks to a keen sense of space and materials which generates an architecture as solid in its forms as in its convictions, as transparent in its aesthetics as in its ethics”, added the jury in a press release.
Spacious, autonomous and inexpensive
The Parisian duo of architects, already awarded in France by the National Grand Prix for Architecture in 2008, made a name for themselves with the “Maison Latapie”, a detached house built in 1993 for a family of two children, in a banal street de Floirac, very close to Bordeaux, which has become emblematic of accommodation that is spacious, independent and inexpensive.
“I think freedom of use is a fairly straightforward concept to understand. This means that the architecture is not binding. »Anne Lacaton, winner of the 2021 Pritzker Prize. Photo courtesy of Philippe Ruault. pic.twitter.com/gnFHTnuNwq
– Pritzker Prize (@PritzkerPrize) March 16, 2021
Far from the traditional suburban pavilion, the back of the house looks like a shed: polycarbonate panels – retractable and transparent – bathe the accommodation in natural light, enlarging the interior common spaces and facilitating climate control.
It was with this project that they first applied greenhouse technologies to the installation of a 60 m2 winter garden, which was to become the most used space in the house. The couple – they met at the Bordeaux school of architecture, from which they graduated in 1980 – is also rewarded for having “redefined the profession of architect”, by favoring the transformation and improvement of existing housing into urban environment, to the detriment of new.
Where others dream of a clean slate, dynamite large complexes deemed dilapidated, they would like to convince to “stop demolishing”, Jean-Philippe Vassal, 67, told AFP. “It’s so violent, so dreadful to have lived somewhere for 10 years and suddenly to see a dwelling disappear in which a friend, a neighbor has existed,” he says. “While we can keep people there, and from what already exists, produce housing that the standard is unable to produce at the same level of quality – spending half the money.”
“Transformation is the opportunity to do more and better with what already exists. Demolition is an easy and short-term decision. It is a waste of many things – a waste of energy, a waste of material and a waste of history ”, Anne Lacaton, 2021 laureate. pic.twitter.com/Buwhvk4ISr
– Pritzker Prize (@PritzkerPrize) March 16, 2021
A principle that the duo applied in 2011 to the Tour Bois Le Prêtre, a set of some 100 housing units built in the early 1960s, in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. In collaboration with Frédéric Druot, Jean-Philippe Vassal and Anne Lacaton increased the surface area and improved the comfort of the apartments by removing the original concrete facade and adding heated extensions, winter gardens and bioclimatic balconies.
No more small windows shyly illuminating cramped rooms, the tenants – present during the work – benefited from enlarged and modular spaces, with large bay windows and a view of the city. A work that they will resume on a larger scale at the Cité du Grand Parc in Bordeaux.
“Space is also a factor of quality of life”
Faced with promoters who aim to capitalize on soaring prices per square meter, “we are trying to defend this idea that space is also a factor of quality of life, of social peace within families or with its neighbors” , explains Anne Lacaton, 65.
The pandemic has come to consolidate their approach, they say. “The past year has shown our extreme fragility”, she says, “it encourages us to say that the space must be much more welcoming”.
This idea of enlarging the space to gain freedom and well-being, the two architects, who created their firm in 1987, do not apply it only to housing. It also applies to their projects dedicated to education – such as the Nantes National School of Architecture, carried out in 2009 – or to art.
In this area, their flagship achievement is the renovation of the Palais de Tokyo, completed in 2012, which will have transformed the Parisian museum erected for the Universal Exhibition of 1937 into a huge Center for Contemporary Art.
Here too, the aim was to considerably enlarge the space accessible to visitors. And to give more freedom to artists and curators, abandoning the white walls typical of contemporary art museums for large unfinished spaces, where all the decor can be invented.
A sixth female winner
With Anne Lacaton, the Pritzker jury inscribes a sixth woman in a long-exclusively male prize list. Anglo-Iraqi Zaha Hadid was the first winner in 2004, followed by Japanese Kazuyo Sejima, co-winner in 2010, Spain’s Carme Pigem, co-winner in 2017, and Irish girls Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara in 2020 .
The previous French winners of the Pritzker are Jean Nouvel, in 2008, and Christian de Portzamparc, in 1994.