“Never Demolish”: The French couple revolutionising architecture
Floris de Bruin uncovers the new economic and environmentally-friendly architecture which could revolutionise the way we build.
Architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillipe Vassal, known for their work in rejuvenating neglected buildings across France, have been awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize. Their achievement marks a seismic shift in what we value in architecture today.
Unlike previous winners who were rewarded for constructing shiny and expensive apartments and flats, Lacaton & Vassal represent a new brand of architecture. Honest and conscientious, the French duo won the award on account of their significant contributions to local communities thanks to their cost-effective and sustainable solutions. It all began in 2004 when they wrote a manifesto together with Frédéric Druot challenging the French government’s wasteful and expensive strategy of demolishing structures that were often well built, but didn’t look right or didn’t fit the ‘image’ anymore.
In short, their creed is: ‘Never demolish, never remove – always add, transform and reuse’.
This is not specific to France alone. When constructing the future, there is a prevailing notion that to do so we need to start from scratch. As The Guardian explains, we live “in an age of demolishing public housing and replacing it with shiny new carbon-hungry developments in the name of “regeneration.”” Lacaton, Vassal and Druot, in turn, argued that it is more viable to work with what is already in place. Fighting against the trend to demolish, Lacaton & Vassal apply the pragmatic approach of building upon rather than building anew, expanding and improving structures wherever possible. In short, their creed is: ‘Never demolish, never remove – always add, transform and reuse’.
By foregrounding economic, social and environmental concerns, they have revolutionised the way we build and create. This no-nonsense approach to construction arose out of growing social and environmental concerns. They find that architects habitually fail at providing beautiful and affordable accommodation, prioritising personal gain over serving their clients. In their own words,
“Space is a common good, just like the sun, air or light. It is a vital material. As architects, we must all approach it as such. However, contemporary materialist and capitalist thinking, which encourages the conception of housing as an efficient financial product, has completely evacuated the dimension of the pleasure of living. And it’s only since we’ve all been confined that we’ve recognised its necessity.” (Lacaton & Vassal)
While this sounds charitable in theory, it is no less elegant in practice. Lacaton & Vassal’s vision centres around providing more generous living space to what is generally granted to social housing. They seek to build spaces that grant their inhabitants ‘pure freedom’ where they have the room to move, create and escape. For example, they believe “every dwelling must have a private outside space, such as a balcony, a terrace, a winter garden, to allow the possibility of living outside, to move around, to be inside-outside” (Lacaton & Vassal).
By foregrounding economic, social and environmental concerns, they have revolutionised the way we build and create.
Social housing projects such as the Grand Parc estate in Bordeaux demonstrate their superior craftsmanship and commitment to providing beautiful and affordable living spaces. They took an age-old building in decline and gave it a new lease of life by refurbishing it with cheap, ordinary materials. What may seem like a sly attempt at low-quality construction is in fact a conscious effort. “Our goal,” according to Lacaton & Vassal, “is to employ economy in order to do the maximum, to increase freedom and living possibilities for families who don’t necessarily have much money.” This explains why they made sure the low-income families who lived in the Grand Parc estate were able to stay in their homes during the construction, to ensure a stress-free experience.
From social housing to contemporary art centres, their work is imminently political in pushing fellow architects to recognise and accept the social and environmental crises we face today. Architects must respond to these challenges deliberately and consider the future ramifications of their work. It is to be hoped that their accomplishment of winning what is considered the ‘Nobel of architecture’ can inspire other architects to make genuine and significant contributions to society. We depend on it.