Never Demolish

While the above words could seem deterrent to the average architect, they are not for Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillipe Vassal. But then the two who have been announced as the Pritzker Prize winners for the year 2021, are not your average architects. Building a practice of this very premise, they have a body of work spanning over the last 30 years. Setting up shop in 1987 they have since worked on several innovative projects for residential, commercial, cultural and educational buildings operating out of their office in Paris. With sustainability and humanity figuring at the core of their practice, they ensure that the notion of economics, the environment and socialism remain to the core of their work. They credit the viability of their design mostly to two attributes, that of keen observation and of finding value in what is there, on site, around the site and in the projected use of the building. For their project on the Leon Aucoc Plaza, in 1996, the architects barely replaced the gravel, treated the lime trees and very slightly modified the traffic, all at once granting more purpose to what was existing. These star-gazing architects are definitely highly refreshing in a world of star-chitects, who focus so much on adding built massing and in effect giving rise to ghost towns down by the dozen. The Pritzker Prize Jury’s citation for their win, states that, “At once beautiful and pragmatic, they refuse any opposition between architectural quality, environmental responsibility, and the quest for an ethical society.” Now that is a very commendable piece of critique that the architects themselves should be very proud about. And my favourite part of the citation reads what the architects say, “The architects have expressed that buildings are beautiful when people feel well in them, when the light inside is beautiful and the air is pleasant, and when there is an easy flow between the interior and exterior.” To paraphrase, a beautiful building makes the inhabiting people feel well, have great light and air, in short ventilation and facilitate a flow between the interior and the exterior. What a wonderful metric to measure our buildings against. We certainly may want to rethink our leaning onto LEED, GRIHA and all the various building codes with this value. Simple and hence perfect.

When asked to transform the Tour Bois le Pretre in Bordeaux, the duo crafted carefully added space to the existing buildings through generous extensions, winter gardens and balconies, supporting the lives of the citizens and intervening into the existing scheme with a rare case of humility, respectfully paying heed to what the original designers would have wanted for the project. Again in the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais in Dunkirk, they chose to keep the original hall and attach a second one of similar dimensions to the existing building. Absent is nostalgia for the past. Rather, they seek transparency, openness, and luminosity with a respect for the inherited and a quest to act responsibly in the present. Today, a building that previously went unnoticed becomes an iconic element in a renewed cultural and natural landscape. Even when working on a massive social housing endeavour consisting on about 530 dwellings, the scale of socialism, the bond with the environment and the acknowledgement of the human aspect is not missing, it is in fact largely highlighted upon and inflated. In the Polyvalent theatre and the Nantes School of Architecture, the sense of drawing in the outdoors into the very interior fabric of the usable space is very visible with dedicated vision applied to the heights and proportions of the interior spaces and the way surfaces are meant to have a dialogue with each other. There is a sense in all their body of work that architecture is more than just buildings, though they may mostly comprise of buildings. The best architecture as seen through their work can be humble, is always thoughtful, respectful, responsible, having a delectable impact on the communities that they enclose and contribute to the camaraderie and the general happy feeling garnered that comes with a knowledge that we are not alone.

In all their projects what I notice is an aura of simplicity, whether in the materials that are employed, in the ratio and proportions applied or mostly in the act of design that does not seek to boast while all at once applying a sense of minimalism almost to the effect of frugality. While most of the images I see, while I have never had the chance to experience any of their work first-hand, have people inhabiting them, people who look at ease, people who are in a jovial atmosphere, binding comfortably into the built mass. Even their smallest projects do not seem to focus on form or function, the tenets of the bigwigs in practice over the last several years of the profession, but seem to focus on other tenets, namely economics and environment. Note that there is no place for or, good design is never a question of this or that, there is no place for the Fool’s Choice, good design all at once incorporates a keen aesthetic, the sensibility of material, an ode to the surroundings, an understanding of the context, both physical and metaphorical and the applies an economy of reason before becoming a very viable and physical part of the environment. My favourite of their projects is the work they have done for the Museum of London at the West Smithfield market as a competition design proposal. The main work for the transformation of the market is centered around spectacular ventilation and keenly studied vertical and horizontal movement proposals. The main idea, is as usual, to maximise, highlight, complete and activate what is already there. An architect is said to plant vines around his mistakes with the hope that nature can melt away all the slights caused by ugly or unsightly architecture, but for Vassal and Lacaton, the parks and greenery can be left to their own avail as no vines or creepers will be seen necessary in their case.

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