Pritzker Architecture Prize Goes to Public Housing Transformation

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Robison Wells
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Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, usually reserved for more fanciful and exciting architectural projects, for their more humble, yet no less impressive, transformative work: Grand Parc towers in France’s suburbs. City planners had scheduled the towers for demotion along with most of the area’s 1960’s-era concrete slab housing—artifacts from the country’s communist past. Lacaton and Vassal disagreed with the decision to flatten the buildings. Their philosophy is: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform and reuse.”

In 2017 they decided to give these buildings an architecturally exciting and socially beneficial overhaul. They wanted the buildings to thrive as low-cost housing. Their credentials proved they could make it work: in 2019, they won the Mies van der Roge Award, named after the architect who said: “Less is more.” Lacaton and Vassal interpreted this to mean “Cheap is more.”

“Our goal is to employ economy to do the maximum, to increase freedom and living possibilities for families who don’t necessarily have much money,” the architects told The Guardian in 2019. “We’re interested in light, air, and working with what exists.”

Construction crews transformed the towers by tearing out the exterior walls to let in more light. They built extended balconies for every apartment. Residents get the effect of living in outdoor, individual structures, even in three towers consisting of 530 units.

Lacaton and Vassal have worked on public housing since 2004. At that time, the French government had paid more than $3 billion to demolish 110,000 low-cost apartments. Since, the two architects have renovated and saved many old Western France complexes.

Architects consider the Pritzker Prize to be the highest industry honor. Past winners include famous architects like Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry, and Rem Koolhaas. In the last 30 years, only one American has received the prize. The prize has gone to firms in Japan, China, Chile, and India in recent years.

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, no strangers to receiving awards for their work, can put one more prestigious endowment on their mantle, the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

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