Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Pritzker Prize winner says LA's Case Study Houses inspired their work repurposing public housing

The architects Jean-Philippe Vassal and Anne Lacaton are deeply committed to providing housing that gives pleasure, to those who can least afford it. They also have an aversion to building anew when you can reuse what's already there. 

They have achieved both by repurposing unloved public housing blocks -- including a tower in Paris and a superblock in Bordeaux -- to add more light and space indoors and out.

Now they have been rewarded for their efforts with the Pritzker Prize, the architecture world's most prestigious honor, and one that is typically awarded to an individual, sometimes a duo, who creates freshly minted buildings, marking the terrain with signature design.


The selection of Lacaton & Vassal brings together two themes that are in the foreground right now: housing and waste. Affordable, decent housing is in huge demand in major cities. Demolition, construction and then the daily running of buildings generates huge amounts of waste (as we explored in this radio series, Wasted). 

Through their surgical conversions of existing buildings like the Latrapie House, shown here before and after, Vassal and Lacaton are elevating and democratizing quality housing; and minimizing the structure's footprint while doing so.


In 2015, I met with Jean-Philippe Vassal at their office in Paris, after visiting Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, a tower block near the Périphérique in northern Paris remodeled by the firm, with Frédéric Druot. 

Vassal told me more about their approach and mentioned that one of the inspirations for their work was in Los Angeles: the Case Study Program. Architects like Pierre Koenig used a "minimum of material" to achieve the "maximum of pleasure," says Vassal.

He adds that the frame of steel and glass they wrapped around the Tour, extending the apartments into "villa"-like spaces with access to exterior rooms, could be seen as "a stack of Case Study houses."

Read on for more from our Q and A:

FA: Housing for the masses was the great Modernist project. Then architects and governments backed away, following the failures of public housing and urban renewal in the postwar years. Now it is back as an important challenge.

JPV: Yes, because to be an architect from this time, from our period, means to think that the luxury, the pleasure of living, should be totally democratic now. It's no more about making fantastic villas for very rich clients. It is to try to make fantastic flats for all people and I think this is the biggest challenge for architects today. (This is) not necessarily housing limited to the walls and windows, but housing in a more general sense; it means living in the city, the idea of what kind of space is around yourself as an inhabitant of a city.

FA: It is also challenging because a lot of housing is being produced by private development where the priority is not necessarily creating a very good quality of space.

JPV: And yet we have a lot of architects now in the world, sometimes looking for work, with the ability to understand (how to improve bad housing) situations. It can't be a tabula rasa anymore. We have to take a situation that is not so good, and push it to the maximum of possibility with respect to economy, with respect to ecology, and with very precise and delicate attention to what is living... it could be trees, it could be plants, it could be people, it could be families, it could be old buildings, it could be all of that.

So let's talk about a specific situation that you worked with, the Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris. Can you describe it?

JPV: For many years in France, mainly around Paris, there was policy by the governments to demolish a lot of social housing blocks when in the same time you have so many people asking for affordable housing and difficulty to build new ones. So we say, instead of demolishing, we should work with what already exists. Sustainability, it is to make things already existing, last longer. So at this point, there was this building, in a very bad way, with people living in it with more and more difficulties. So they even called this building Alcatraz.


So they were thinking of demolishing it. And we tried to show that it was possible to extend this building, to understand precisely the situations of families, whether there were more children, or if they were old people (and) wanted to stay there, even if the owner wanted to demolish. And we offered the possibility of extension, and then the new building consists of a crown of new modular units, like a very large scaffolding, which enables adding more windows, and to extend the life to a winter garden and a balcony.

FA: So the big design change that you achieved was to give people an outside space; you created an external area.

JPV: Not only outside space. Also some additional bedrooms. We have 15 levels of flats, and we have five bedrooms as a result of the extension on two sides of the building; and then extra space that works as a winter garden, allowing for economic and energy savings of 60% of energy costs before. So the taxes and the rent can stay at the same level and the extension of this building is half the price of its demolition and rebuilding a new flat. But at the same time the addition of 50% more area makes the flats much bigger in terms of qualities than the standard today. Most of these buildings were constructed in periods where it was really difficult to give comfort, to give pleasure. But (with this) extension, you can give pleasure.

FA: Now, many will argue that public housing towers like this have contributed to some of the social problems or stresses that cities like Paris or London are dealing with. And they'll say it would be more sensible to tear down the building and get people into lower rise buildings with more connection to the street. Did you have that conversation along the along the way? And what's your answer?

JPV: First, it is to be pragmatic. The building was existing and in terms of economy and sustainability, pragmatism is to work with what is there. Also, consider that all the people living there had relations with the place. They knew the neighbors, they knew the place, the school was not far away. Even if the life was difficult, they wanted to keep this proximity. So it's not only the building that matters. What is interesting it is the life that happens in the building -- during 20 years, during 30 years; people create a sort of inside richness that nobody looks at from outside. But this richness exists. So I think the work of the architect is to be very delicate with that, because this is an incredible richness. All the people have decorated their flats, or with their furniture, or they try to have some plants even in difficult spaces. So delicacy for me is the most important question.


And everybody acknowledges that you can have towers for very rich people, but when it is for poor people, they would have problems. So it's only because the towers (for the rich) have been pushed to the maximum. If you have a very, very small balcony, it's clear that you will put storage on your balcony. But if you have more space inside, you keep your storage inside and you can use a balcony as a normal balcony with armchairs and flowers, etc. And then it's beautiful.

FA: Buildings are usually unoccupied while under construction, but you're talking about working with an occupied building. As an architect, did you enjoy that challenge?

JVP: I like all sorts of challenge but here the question was to (build) with the people inside. So you have to consider if it is possible to make a big change, but to try to be as delicate as possible for them. So the question was, is it possible for these people to sleep every night, in their bedroom, even during the works? We tried to do that. So, yes, you have a lot of dust, you have noise but because everyone wanted to sleep in his bedroom in the night, or people wanted to use his bathroom during the day, we try to see you how it was possible to do that during the construction site. And this precision, this delicacy, is not so much more complex or expensive than a normal project but sometimes it's more difficult, and sometimes it's more exciting, it's more challenging. You meet the people, you meet the family, you're invited for to have some little cakes or a little beverage after lunch, you can talk with people. For me, that's really the work of an architect.

FA: And this project’s been a great success. It seems as if the residents are happy. Are you now working on other projects of a similar nature?

JPV: Actually, we are finishing a much bigger building in Bordeaux, in Southwest France (the G, H, I Buildings, shown below) where we have two big, very long slabs, which are 15 levels high and each one is 200 meters long. So we have two like that plus a little one. So it's nearly 600 flats. And here also people are living inside the building and we make the extension the same way.


Bordeaux is a city where (buildings are) quite low, three to four levels. So here you have these big slabs that have a fantastic view on the Southeast on the river, on the landscape. But they had small windows so nobody could really appreciate this situation. So now you have flats (transformed into) villas at every level with four meters of extension in direction of the landscape and the sun and the river.


FA: And now you have richer people coming along saying how can I live there?

JPV: Yes, but it is interesting because people already, they discovered a new space. They were just protected from the dust or from the noise and, suddenly, they see that they have nearly two times more space than before and then they start to go to the shops to buy some plants, or to buy some new furniture and to occupy, to test to experiment the space. And it's really interesting to see that; it's wonderful.

FA: There are two types of housing  challenges at the moment. One is the poorly made, rental housing you are describing. And now we've got a new problem that's occurring in Paris, in London, in LA, in New York and that's the unavailability of housing for purchase for the workforce: nurses, teachers, the backbone of society. Based on your experience what do these big cities do with housing this huge populace in a decent way?

JPV: Everybody's talking about ecology, sustainability, (but we need to) work very precisely on precise situations, like in Berlin the Baugruppen, they work on a specific (building and piece of land), and they can have very nice results in a precise situation. So I think this is really important today in the existing city, because we are still working as urbanists or architects, as if our cities were new, as if it was tabula rasa. We are still continuing architecture or urban planning from the 19th century when what is interesting is to work with the existing city with its problems: and not to do the minimum, but to do the maximum. So, with a minimum of money, with a minimum of budget, you can really push each situation to its best. We have to end the idea of what is the minimum for life? No, what is the minimum of budget for the maximum for life?


It is interesting, because when we talk about how (a unit in a housing tower) should not be a "flat", it should be a "villa", we always reference the Case Study Program in the US and the houses made by Pierre Koenig, Neutra, all of these. It was social housing, it was a social housing program.


FA: It was a social housing program in aspiration but what mostly got built for a variety of reasons were single family homes. Tell me what you love about Case Study architecture.

JPV: A Case Study house is a villa, so it’s on the ground. But we can imagine the same space at any level. So, living in a block, to have the qualities of a villa you need to have some rooms and at the end an extra space like a garden, as if you stacked different Case Study on top of each other. And when we see all these houses, all these villas, that were built (in LA), I see the one of Pierre Koenig, it is eight posts, columns of steel, very small, corrugated aluminum on top, an envelope with glass what it is no weight. It costs nothing, it is really minimum of material for maximum of pleasure. And what we see is rich people like to be there. So the idea is that you can take this reference, adapt it to a different situation and give this to the maximum of people.

FA: I love that. So you're a fan of LA's modernists?

JPV: Yes, because I believe in this modernity about space. And I think today, it's a really important question. If we go back to less is more, I think also cheap is more is part of the challenge today.

This interview was edited for clarity. Image of Bailey House by Pierre Koenig courtesy Architectural Resources Group. Photos of G, H, I Buildings in Bordeaux (with Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin) and Latrapie House courtesy of Philippe Ruault.

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