Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal of France have been selected as the 49th and 50th laureates of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in the 2021 cycle, as announced by Tom Pritzker, Chairman of the Hyatt Foundation. Pritzker Architecture Prize is known internationally as architecture’s highest honour.
“This year, more than ever, we have felt that we are part of humankind as a whole. Be it for health, political or social reasons, there is a need to build a sense of collectiveness. Like in any interconnected system, being fair to the environment, being fair to humanity, is being fair to the next generation,” comments Alejandro Aravena, Chair of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury. “Lacaton and Vassal are radical in their delicacy and bold through their subtleness, balancing a respectful yet straightforward approach to the built environment.”
Over the years, Lacaton and Vassal have re-examined sustainability in the building sector through their work with pre-existing structures. Much of their work has revolved around giving new life to old and depleted structures and with minimal insertions, thus lengthening the longevity of the buildings. Central to their work is the enrichment of human life and freedom of use by creating spaces that are democratic and transparent in their spirit.
Lacaton insists, “Transformation is the opportunity of doing more and better with what is already existing. The demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term. 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.”
Lacaton and Vassal undertake restrained interventions through the philosophy of ‘never demolish,’ giving new life to outdated buildings. Their work is about solving constraints and problems and creating solutions that can evoke emotions. Their work is about designing for simplicity.
“Good architecture is open—open to life, open to enhance the freedom of anyone, where anyone can do what they need to do,” says Lacaton. “It should not be demonstrative or imposing, but it must be something familiar, useful and beautiful, with the ability to quietly support the life that will take place within it.”
Their work, over the years, has spanned private and social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public spaces, and urban developments. By designing with the aim to enhance the quality of life, they are able to benefit the individual socially, ecologically and economically, aiding the evolution of the city.
“Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have always understood that architecture lends its capacity to build a community for all of society,” remarks Pritzker. “Their aim to serve human life through their work, demonstration of strength in modesty, and cultivation of a dialogue between old and new, broadens the field of architecture.”
Their significant works include Cap Ferret House (Cap Ferret, France 1998); 14 social houses for Cité Manifeste (Mulhouse, France 2005); Pôle Universitaire de Sciences de Gestion (Bordeaux, France 2008); low-rise apartments for 53 units (Saint-Nazaire, France 2011); a multipurpose theatre (Lille, 2013); Ourcq-Jaurès student and social housing (Paris, France 2013); a 59-unit social housing development at Jardins Neppert (Mulhouse, France 2014–2015); and a residential and office building in Chêne-Bourg (Geneva, Switzerland 2020).
Anne Lacaton (1955, Saint-Pardoux, France) and Jean-Philippe Vassal (1954, Casablanca, Morocco) met in the late 1970s during their formal architecture training at École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture et de Paysage de Bordeaux. Lacaton went on to pursue a Masters in Urban Planning from Bordeaux Montaigne University (1984), while Vassal relocated to Niger, West Africa to practice urban planning. Lacaton often visited Vassal, and it was there that the genesis of their architectural doctrine began, as they were profoundly influenced by the beauty and humility of sparing resources within the country’s desert landscapes.
In Niamey, Niger, Lacaton and Vassal built their first joint project, a straw hut, constructed with locally sourced bush branches, which yielded surprising impermanence, relenting to the wind within two years of completion. They vowed to never demolish what could be redeemed and instead, make sustainable what already exists, thereby extending through addition, respecting the luxury of simplicity, and proposing new possibilities.
They established Lacaton & Vassal in Paris (1987), and have since demonstrated boldness through their design of new buildings and transformative projects. For over three decades, they have designed private and social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public space, and urban strategies. The duo’s architecture reflects their advocacy of social justice and sustainability, by prioritizing a generosity of space and freedom of use through economical and ecological materials. They have been actively working throughout Europe and West Africa.