The 2021 Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize, to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal underlines a gradual, ongoing shift in architecture.
Lacaton and Vassal’s design philosophy includes the Never Demolish principle, which they coined. Architectural design begins inside the existing space and transforms and expands what is already there – the opposite of a top-down approach that starts with a new glossy shell.
They apply this principle to inner-city housing projects, where the needs of current inhabitants guide designs and aid in improving the quality of living. Lacaton and Vassal value sustainability by balancing economic, environmental and social considerations. A well-known example of the Never Demolish principle is the transformation of three social housing buildings in Bordeaux into beautiful living spaces. Throughout the renovation process, all the units remained occupied. This project also won the 2019 EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture.
Awarding the Pritzker Prize to architects known for renovation work, demonstrates a shift in the values underlying architecture. In this approach, the focus moves away from spectacular new buildings towards the essential, but undervalued need to upgrade and care for existing architecture that is also necessary from an ecological and social point of view. Dezeen refers to this as “urban stewardship” .
The Jury of the Pritzker Prize valued their “modernist hopes and dreams to improve the lives of many [that] 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.”
Their portfolio includes planning urban, cultural and educational spaces, and they also have, apart from social housing, designed galleries and private houses. Sustainable practices such as the use of natural lighting and cross ventilation are prominent in these designs. Lacaton and Vassal’s architectural lives are also complemented by their teaching, and they both teach at universities in Europe and hold positions as associate and visiting professors.