A prize for humble architecture

The profession’s highest award goes to a French couple who rely on modesty and listening – even inaction – to achieve ethical works.

French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, recipients of this year's Pritzker architecture prize. The pair founded Lacaton & Vassal in Paris in 1987 and have designed private and public housing, as well as museums and other cultural institutions.

By habit of their profession, most architects want to be famous for designing grand cultural icons. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” home or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Spain. Yet given the winners of this year’s Pritzker Prize – considered the “Nobel” of architecture – the profession might be ready for a different blueprint, one that starts with humility.

The 2021 winners are Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, a team in France whose work, according to the Pritzker jury, is a “demonstration of strength in modesty.” An extreme example of their work was the couple’s response to a request for a redesign of a public square in Bordeaux. Except for suggesting a coat of gravel, they said to leave the plaza alone. “Embellishment has no place here,” they wrote. “Quality, charm, life [already] exist.”

“If you take time to observe, and look very precisely, sometimes the answer is to do nothing,” Mr. Vassal told The Guardian.

Their modesty goes deeper than to decline a commission. They are well known for offering an alternative to a government plan to demolish a modernist 1960s apartment block in Bordeaux called Cité du Grand Parc. After talking to the residents, they instead were able to extend the size of each apartment, adding a covered balcony with a winter garden – without needing to move out the tenants during construction. And for less money and less pollution.

“There is almost never a completely lost situation!” said Ms. Lacaton, who says she first looks for the life already happening in a place.

They call their architecture the “no architecture.” But their rallying cry is really more restorative: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse!” They built a home in Lège, for example, around an existing forest. Trees grow inside the house.

What impressed the Pritzker jury was the couple’s refusal to believe there can be any opposition between “architectural quality, environmental responsibility, and the quest for an ethical society.” Their work has adjusted the definition of architecture, the jury said.

The couple learned from time working in Niger on the edge of the Sahara, where they were forced to listen to residents and rely on local materials to design homes. “Economy … is a tool of freedom,” they said. And adds Ms. Lacaton, “You just have to ... look at things with a little love.”

Their architecture has “democratic spirit” and is “as transparent in its aesthetic as in its ethics,” cites the Pritzker Prize. Mr. Vassal puts it more humbly: “We don’t know what the final result will look like and we’re not going to pretend that we do.”

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” If architects follow the Lacaton-Vassal method, more buildings would be shaped – or sometimes simply reshaped – by the people who would actually use them. Architects wouldn’t so much lead as follow.  

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