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Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal win 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal / Images © Joël Saget

French architecture duo Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have been awarded the prestigious 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize for their innovative and sustainable approach that "reflects architecture's democratic spirit" and their "commitment to a restorative architecture." Their recognition marks the first time a French female architect has won the prize, with Anne Lacaton becoming the sixth woman to receive the award since it was established in 1979. The pair was recognized for the numerous social housing projects they have undertaken as principals of the Paris-based studio Lacaton & Vassal.

The Pritzker Prize, awarded annually, honors a living architect or architects whose work demonstrates talent, vision, and commitment and represents significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture. The award was established by the Pritzker family of Chicago in 1979 and is often referred to as “architecture’s Nobel” and “the profession’s highest honor.” Previous French laureates of the Pritzker Prize include the two well-known architects Christian de Portzamparc and Jean Nouvel.

Throughout their careers, Lacaton & Vassal have rejected city plans calling for the demolition of social housing, focusing instead on designing from the inside out to prioritize the welfare of a building’s inhabitants and their unanimous desires for larger spaces. Current works in progress include the housing transformations of a former hospital into a 138-unit, a mid-rise apartment building in Paris, France, and an 80-unit, mid-rise building in Anderlecht, Belgium; the transformation of an office building in Paris, France; mixed-use buildings offering hotel and commercial space in Toulouse, France; and a 40-unit, private housing, mid-rise building in Hamburg, Germany.

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, as they prioritize a generosity of space and freedom of use through economical and ecological materials.

"Not only have they defined an architectural approach that renews the legacy of modernism, but they have also proposed an adjusted definition of the very profession of architecture. (...) The modernist hopes and dreams to improve the lives of many are reinvigorated through their work that responds to the climatic and ecological emergencies of our time, as well as social urgencies, particularly in the realm of urban housing," stated the jury. 

Commentators pointed out that these humble works address real problems in reasonable ways. They are practical works aimed at improving living conditions and elevating everyday experiences.

Columbia University architecture professor Mabel O Wilson suggested that the firm's approach of cost-effective, creative readaptation could be a model for urban planning in the U.S., where demolition has been used as a solution to deteriorating public housing in cities like Chicago and St. Louis. 

 Philippe Ruault53 Units, Low-Rise Apartments, Social Housing. © Philippe Ruault

 Philippe RuaultÉcole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes. © Philippe Ruault

Notable projects include a major restoration project of three social housing blocks in Grand Parc Bordeaux and the renovation of the crumbling 1960s Tour Bois-le-Prêtre tower block in Paris. Both projects were carried out in collaboration with Frédéric Druot. The studio has also designed 53 low-rise social-housing apartments in Saint-Nazaire and a 59-unit social housing development at Jardins Neppert, Mulhouse. 

Another remarkable work is the renovation, and then the expansion, of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which has suffered from decades of neglect and subsequent deterioration. Free from the typical clean-room type atmospheres of other museums, the building elements are allowed to age unencumbered which adds to the patina of a structure that has stood for nearly a century.

Palais de Tokyo Expansion / Lacaton & Vassal. © Philippe Ruault

They also worked on the renovation of the FRAC of Dunkerque, in the North of France. To achieve this concept, the architects created a double of the Halle, with the same dimensions as the original. The new building was attached to the existing building, on the side that faces the sea. The new building juxtaposes delicately without competing with the original or fading under its shadow. The duplication required that the architects pay keen attention to the identity of the Halle. The building became an ambitious public resource, with flexible capacity, that welcomes a range of uses--from everyday exhibitions to large-scale artistic events--that can have both regional and international resonance.

FRAC Dunkerque / Lacaton & Vassal. © Philippe Ruault

About Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal 

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.