Undeterred even by the most urban of settings, French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have been awarded this year’s Pritzker Prize – architecture’s highest honour – for their designs transforming urban housing into uplifting and sustainable spaces, particularly in the context of public housing.
Tom Pritzker, chairman of The Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the prestigious award, announced the duo’s win on Tuesday.
“Through their design of private and social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public spaces, and urban developments, Lacaton and Vassal re-examine sustainability in their reverence for pre-existing structures, conceiving projects by first taking inventory of what already exists,” the organisers said in a statement.
“By prioritizing the enrichment of human life … they are able to benefit the individual socially, ecologically and economically, aiding the evolution of a city.”
In her own remarks, Lacaton, 65, noted that “good architecture is open – open to life, open to enhance the freedom of anyone, where anyone can do what they need to do. 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”.
Vassal, 67, said: “Our work is about solving constraints and problems, and finding spaces that can create uses, emotions and feelings.
“At the end of this process and all of this effort, there must be lightness and simplicity, when all that has been before was so complex.”
The pair also explained how the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced their longtime view that people deserve open space and a connection to nature, even when living in housing projects in dense cities.
“It’s clear that in one year many things have changed, especially in terms of our relationship with space,” Lacaton said. “We have all been forced to stay home. It has clearly made visible that living space is extremely important.”
“We believe more and more that we have to open spaces to the natural elements – to air, sun, and natural light,” Vassal added.
One of the ways the pair attempts to connect the inside to the outside, he said, is the model of an apartment opening onto a greenhouse-like enclosed conservatory or “winter garden”, which itself opens onto a balcony. “It’s a way of bringing the concept of a house with a garden into the dense city,” he said.
Lacaton and Vassal met while studying architecture in the late 1970s in Bordeaux. Lacaton then pursued an urban planning degree while Vassal moved to Niger to work in urban planning – an experience he called “a second school of architecture”.
In Niger, the two built their first joint project, a straw hut made of locally sourced wood.
The pair founded Lacaton & Vassal in 1987 in Bordeaux and moved it to Paris in 2000. They have devoted their energies to both private and public housing, as well as museums and other cultural and academic institutions.
The Pritzker Architecture Prize was established in 1979 by the late entrepreneur Jay A Pritzker and his wife, Cindy. Winners receive a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion.