The top prize in architecture was just awarded to French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, two designers who’ve embraced a vow to “never demolish.”
Recognizing the environmental costs of buildings—from the energy they use to the carbon emissions embodied in their materials—Lacaton and Vassal have focused their work on adaptive reuse. Instead of tearing down aging or obsolete buildings, they find ways of adapting existing spaces to meet new needs.
In addition to clever and environmentally conscious new buildings, they’ve created an oeuvre of projects that show how creative design thinking can reduce architectural waste, lower costs, and provide a social benefit.
Their firm, Lacaton & Vassal, has specialized in adapting aging social housing projects across France. One project cited by the Pritzker jury is La Tour Bois le Prêtre, a cramped 1960s-era social housing tower on the outskirts of Paris. In conjunction with architect Frédéric Druot, Lacaton and Vassal revitalized the building and expanded the area of its 96 units by tearing off the original concrete facade and extending the apartments with large terraces and balconies, turning a drab and potentially problematic housing project in an impoverished area into modern, light-filled residences. It’s architecture not through ground-up invention but subtle addition.
Another cited project, Léon Aucoc Plaza, is a small plaza in Bordeaux, which the architects were commissioned to revamp. After studying the site, they decided that a new design wasn’t actually needed. Instead, they outlined a series of simple maintenance routines to clean more often, replace the gravel, and take better care of the lime trees on site.
Other works often employ simple greenhouse-style building materials, such as the polycarbonate panels used on a private house in Bordeaux to create a large, barn-like winter garden and patio. The semi-transparent panels also show up in several social housing projects, as well as commercial buildings, and serve to inexpensively draw in natural light while creating a sense that the separation between inside and outside has blurred.
These simple, often unpredictable approaches to projects have established Lacaton and Vassal as two of France’s most thoughtful architects. Their focus on reducing waste and avoiding demolition has guided their work for more than 30 years.
“Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing. The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term,” Lacaton said in the Prize’s announcement. “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.”
Using architecture to counter this waste is more than just a design concept to Lacaton and Vassal. It’s a philosophy for how architecture should co-exist with the world.