At the exhibition Free space, ‘habiter’ transformation, the clarity, rationality and empathy of the architects Lacaton and Vassal, winners of the Pritzker Architecture Prize 2021, is displayed. It is a sequence that begins with the detailed relationship of their works through plans and photographs on the ground floor down from the ICO Museum in Madrid, to the spatiality of the upper floor, where the semi-darkness is animated by the light of the screens on which videos made from inside his works are projected, like windows open to the horizon and the sky.
The Pritzker Prize has given visibility to his three-decade work, which conveys a message of hope for the lives and cities of today, where the problems of social housing and the quality of housing affect the majority of people. Its architecture is therapeutic, protective and generates better living conditions for the residents of the buildings in which they intervene.
Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal base their work on a central idea: “never demolish, eliminate or replace, always add, transform and reuse”. By means of these concepts, applied to housing blocks in the urban peripheries, they have achieved exemplary interventions on buildings that were considered obsolete and were waiting to be demolished. After his performance, the buildings have been reborn as chrysalis, achieving a metamorphosis in which they have gained space, quality of life and a better relationship with nature and sustainability.
The validity of Lacaton & Vassal’s ideas has been verified through economics. Buildings that were to be demolished and rebuilt, have managed, with considerably lower budgets, to recover their physical integrity, the functionality of their services, and increase the surface of the houses with extensions to the outside. In this way they have achieved that the houses have a higher quality and variety of spaces, incorporating terraces, winter gardens and viewpoints that significantly enrich them.
Increasing the surface of each home allows the spaces to be larger, but also that they can be used in a different way, more personal and free, achieving more cubic meters and a greater capacity to adapt them to personal tastes and needs. This versatility has been especially demanded during the confinement of the pandemic, when houses have needed to adapt to new vital schemes that demanded the capacity for change, something impossible in the minimal domestic spaces of the urban peripheries. The idea of ”free space” in the title of the exhibition becomes a reality in their interventions, in which they try to eliminate walls and windows to give continuity to the interior spaces, opening them to the outside and to natural light.
The second section of the sample talks about transformation. And it is not a slogan. It is enough to review the thirty works built by the couple of architects to check their ability to transmute obsolete buildings, even evicted, and give them new life. This is the case of the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, a large abandoned museum structure that they decided to treat as a spatial support without definitions of use. Taking as a model the apparently chaotic Plaza de Yamaa el Fna in Marrakech, they enabled the connection and enclosure elements, expanded the useful surface and arranged the technical resources with more economic criteria, avoiding conditioning, with the distribution, everything that would restrict the freedom to organize space with various configurations. The radical logic of the intervention received a mixture of disbelief and admiration, and enshrined a method of dealing with the problems of a complex structure with specific interventions.
If the concepts of free space and transformation are architectural, the habiter, in French in the title of the exhibition, goes much further. Dwelling is one of the most profound acts of the human being, the way of accommodating their intimate space, which not only implies the minimum conditions of surface, hygiene and ventilation, it also requires its own scheme of ordering needs, relations with the outside, with the landscape and nature, with the sky, and also the delicate balance between intimacy and socialization. Inhabiting must include the notion of freedom in architecture which, for Anne Lacaton, “comes from the movement, it is a bit like the idea of the villa, everyone would like to live in a villa, enter and leave the open air within our housing, playing between the interior and the garden, is a way of living that we try to reproduce anywhere, “he explains to elDiario.es.
This aspect is not only central to Lacaton & Vassal’s thinking, they have also found the formula to put it into practice. It is not about inventing solutions, it is much better to seek them in collaboration with the users of the buildings in which they intervene. According to Anne Lacaton, first you have to go, enter, talk to the neighbors and start generating together, “not from the reproach or complaint, not from the demand for reparation.” “We try to take the dialogue to a position of including dreams, aspirations. People must be told that this is possible, they must be made to consider that these transformations are possible, and that it will not be a burden for them, that they will be able to remain in his house during the works… And thus start the discussion from optimistic and positive bases. We must incite the dream of what could be “, develops Lacaton. In this way they make optimism and a positive sense the engine of change. And then they make it happen.
The architecture of Lacaton & Vassal seems to welcome people with a deep, understanding and firm sense at the same time, it offers them space to create their own way of living, and it does not force them, it only proposes and allows. There is not an idea in your work that does not seem simple and logical. The need for their work existed before they arrived, but someone had to define and build it. It seems a miracle that they have succeeded, and that it has been with subtlety, intensity and personality. But it is better than a miracle, because it contains the seed, the method, so that the concept takes hold and grows a more human, free and sustainable architecture. They have shown that it is possible.
Why aren’t there more similar interventions? Often times, strict urban regulations and land ownership prevent buildings from occupying more surface to grow around their perimeter, one of the resources that Lacaton & Vassal have applied in some of their most valuable works. For this they have had the initiative of various managers of social housing in the cities where they have intervened in France or Switzerland, even some owners of rental buildings who relied on less costly actions than demolition and reconstruction. The main beneficiaries were the tenants.
Politics is the word that flies over all social housing issues, especially the one that would make it possible to shorten the distance between the imaginable and the possible. The politics of change should be the tool to escape the normative prison that imposes rules, but also often prevents improvements. As Anne Lacaton explains, “the regulation can be modified, even sometimes it is the regulation that changes, prohibiting what was previously allowed.” An unforeseen regulatory change annulled the already projected growth forecast of the Parisian building of the Bois du Prêtre. They continued to fight and managed to get the law to make an exception for their work, so that the architect humorously comments that “sometimes architecture can change the regulations.”
Jean-Philippe Vassal explains another aspect of his work, his work “on the intensification of the city, both on the built and the non-built situation, on the building and the public space,” and also on proximity, “which is very complicated. If there is little distance there is no privacy, and if there is a lot there is no social contact. This has to be dealt with from the architecture, and I think that urban planning does not do it because it is very generalist “.
The clean luminosity of the spaces created by Lacaton & Vassal contains a charge of depth regarding the possible and necessary architecture. They give prominence to the people who use the houses, and they contradict the speculative and wasteful routines of the real estate market. They propose greater amounts of space for each residence, understanding that taking the word inhabit to its broadest sense requires an amount of space that allows it to be organized in a personal way, without adhering to a rigid scheme of uses and functions. They also propose and develop lighter and more sustainable technologies, making construction processes cheaper, working with trades and not with intermediaries.
When they expand the buildings to the outside, they multiply the surface they occupy of urban land, creating winter gardens and galleries on each floor capable of generating greenhouse effect and capturing energy inside during the day, reducing energy consumption. With 60,000 euros, the budget of a house of 80 m2, they were able to make a house of 180. They have shown that they can achieve the most affordable space for everyone, building twice as much at the same price as a standard accommodation. If true luxury is space, they can be accused of producing cheap luxury, a luxury redefined in terms of “generosity, freedom, pleasure, ease, more air, more light and more space.”
Studying his work carefully it is verified that all the processes of thought and production of architecture have been reinterpreted by the French team from optimism and agreement, from the ability to imagine changes in the life of the communities. “Promoters often have a standard project and a client in mind, and we strive to achieve a form of freedom in the space, where the inhabitants can love it, change it and own it,” says Vassal. Faced with the routine of creating collective housing architecture for the market, for developers, without knowing the specific user and their needs, Lacaton & Vassal have found the joy of working for the people who live in the building, knowing them and helping them improve their lives and their homes.
His influence on the reality constructed so far has been modest, but the value of his contributions, the clarity and usefulness of his thought, has not gone unnoticed. That is why they often speak of their ideas in architecture schools and detect “an incredible movement of students, in many countries, interested in working with communities directly, helping to improve the most deteriorated areas, from the periphery of the big cities to the rural areas of the less developed countries “. In one of them, in Niger, they began their professional career. Without a doubt, it has been its coherence and exemplary nature that has driven the 2021 Pritzker Prize jury.
The architecture of Lacaton & Vassal operates mainly on complex urban situations and abandoned industrial buildings, but always modern buildings, whether they are from the 30s like the Palais Tokyo, or blocks of flats from the 70s and 80s of the last century, such as the 530s. transformed homes in the Citè du Grand Parc in Bordeaux.
They know and admire the masters and pioneers of the Modern Movement, they start from a deep understanding of the system of Le Corbusier’s Domino House, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house and his Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago, the Californian Case Study Houses and other models of strict modernity that combined rigor and economy together with new concepts of lightness and transparency. “The Modern Movement, which has not been perfect, especially in the urban part, has been denatured in postmodernity, in deconstructivism” says Vassal. The sensation that their work establishes a new-minded continuity with respect to the origins and essences of modernity is inevitable and, without being one of their objectives, they achieve a precise formal definition of silent harmony and contained elegance, perhaps involuntary.