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THIS YEAR’S WINNERS of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, often referred to as that profession’s Nobel Prize, are French couple Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal. Unlike many architects of note, the pair has a 30-year career of designing affordable new spaces out of existing structures.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize website offers a listing of laureates dating back to 1979, its first granting. Familiar names include I.M. Pei, 1983; Frank Gehry, 1989; and Renzo Piano, 1998.  

A Lacaton-Vassal project: refurbishing these 53 low-rise apartments in Saint-Nazaire, France. This and following images by Philippe Ruault for The New York Times, March 16, 2021.

Robin Pogrebin describes their achievements in The New York Times, March 16, 2021. She writes, “Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have never demolished a building in order to construct a new one.” 

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, winners of the 2021 Pritzker Prize. Image by Laurent Chalet in The New York Times, March 16, 2021.

Lacaton says, “There are too many demolitions of existing buildings which are not old, which still have a life in front of them, which are not out of use. We think that is too big a waste of materials. If we observe carefully, if we look at things with fresh eyes, there is always something positive to take from an existing situation.”

Respecting Memory of Things and People Already There. Robin Pogrebin relates that they even once constructed a building around a forest—always making sure to integrate the natural landscape and preserve the past. Vassal said, “Never demolish, never cut a tree, never take out a row of flowers. Take care of the memory of things that were already there, and listen to the people that are living there.”

“This philosophy,” Pogrebin observes, “is evident in their projects like their 2012 expansion of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. By burrowing into the basement with raw, minimalist materials, the architects transformed that remnant of the 1937 World’s Fair into what is reputed to be the biggest non-collecting contemporary art museum in Europe.”

The Palais de Tokyo in Paris used raw, minimalist materials.

Living Space Expanded. Global Construction Review, March 18, 2021, writes, “Lacaton and Vassal, who formed their practice in 1987, have worked on private and social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public spaces, and urban developments in Europe and West Africa.”

With La Tour Bois le Prêtre, social housing in Paris, Lacaton and Vassal extended living space by incorporating balconies in their refurbishing design.

GCR writes, “The Pritzker Prize jury commended their use of outside space, apparent in their refurbishment of La Tour Bois le Prêtre (Paris, 2011), a 17-storey, 96-unit city housing project originally built in the early 1960s…. always abiding by their motto of ‘never demolish.’ ”

“The architects transformed and expanded 530 apartments in Bordeau’s Grand Parc neighborhood without residents’ having to leave their homes.”—The New York Times.

The Serendipity of Refurbishing. Pogrebin writes, “Sometimes they are surprised by the new uses that residents come up with. When the architects expected a greenhouse to be filled with plants, for example, the residents instead used it as a living area with armchairs and tables.”

“‘When we were thinking it could be a place for nature, it was a place for activity,” Vassal said. “This place could have been used 50 percent of the time and in fact is used 90 percent of the time.”

“We have a strong belief,” Lacaton says, “that people have the ability to be creative, if given the space to do it.”

Vassal adds, ““If the people inside feel comfortable, feel happy, have the possibility of being alone or looking at the clouds, it is this moment that creates architecture.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021


  1. Mike B
    March 27, 2021

    That photo of the Palais de Tokyo looks like either the entrance to a dark ride, or a space that with slight re-lighting could serve as a set for a scene placed in a hall of the Mines of Moria. Actually quite well done, and appropriate for a non-collecting museum of modern art. Thanks for the story!

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