Jean-Philippe Vassal tells Icon about his passion for social housing and why the role of architect is a vital one in today's society. By Joe Lloyd
Few architects have embedded less-is-more into their practice like Lacaton & Vassal. This summer, the Paris-based outfit, comprising Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, won the EU’s prestigious Mies van der Rohe prize for its renovation of three buildings in the Grand Parc housing estate in Bordeaux (2016), undertaken with Frédéric Druot and Christophe Hutin.
Fighting the trend of demolishing post-war housing blocks, they refurbished and extended 530 flats with a 3.8m-deep winter garden and an open-air balcony, transforming a trio of foreboding concrete edifices into a glimmering glass wall. Residents were guaranteed a frozen rent. This idea of addition rather than demolition and preservation over replacement, has the potential to revolutionise the way cities develop.
Icon spoke to Vassal as he prepared to deliver the 29th Annual Architecture Lecture at the Royal Academy in London.
ICON: What would you say is the role of the architect today?
JEAN-PHILIPPE VASSAL: It seems to me that, today, architecture is in a different place to the other arts. We have not changed so much from the architects of the 19th century, in practice, and in the way people and politicians understand it. And I think this is the main challenge for us, to work for all citizens, all inhabitants, not only the richest ones. And we should try to keep in consideration the difficulties of each situation: what are the problems, what is missing? The role is that of a doctor,
I would say.
ICON: Lacaton & Vassal works exclusively with the public sector. What drove the decision to do this?
JPV: Traditionally in France there was quite a strong public sector. Social housing companies, museums, universities. And I strongly believe in the idea of the public interest. As architects, we should consider the cost of buildings, their maximum capacity, and what kind of pleasure, comfort and quality we can give to citizens.
ICON: In London, several housing estates have been sold off to developers, forcefully depopulated and demolished. What is the situation in France?
JPV: For many years we had a public sector that was able to develop, with architects, good and affordable projects for people who needed affordable housing. But year after year we see this sector become more fragile, because the government policy is to give contracts to the private sector. I think it’s a strange paradox. The objectives that are always pushed to the front by municipalities are ‘we need to make a smart, affordable city because the rents are too high, etc.’ But we say, ‘wait one moment: the municipality should consider that they are causing the system that was able to create these situations’.
We think that as architects, we can really influence development by bringing another approach, which is considering the existing city, and its qualities, its problems and difficulties. It is very precise and delicate. The idea of transformation is also important for us. We need to transform before thinking about demolition. It is another kind of approach to the urban question: to start from the detail, the problem, the difficulty. We can repair, we can add something where it is missing, step by step, flat by flat. And this will produce an urban plan at the end. It’s also linked to ecology, because if we make things delicately and precisely they will also necessarily be sustainable and economical at the same time.
ICON: Why has, in the vast majority of cases, replacement prevailed over improvement?
JPV: I think it comes from lack of precise observation. We stay far away from the problem: we see some difficult social relations, and a facade that is not beautiful, and the system decides that a tabula rasa would be better. We never go inside; we take the decision to demolish before going inside the different flats.
If we had gone there, we would see how precise it is, how decorated, how much energy and love have been spent to try and keep it in good condition over ten, 20 years. This richness is invisible. We need to work with it, and the people who created it, to achieve more than what new systems are providing today.
ICON: Where did your interests in public housing develop?
JPV: After I finished my diploma at the National School of Architecture in Bordeaux, I went to the Sahara Desert. And there I was impressed by the capacity of the inhabitants to build something with nothing. It was a very poetic approach: to find some branches, to find a cloth, to use them with a tree to create some shadow, just to shelter for a few hours. And I think this could be the same for us, except not so much about materials but about situations.
It seems to me that the question of addition is very important. We add to the situation instead of taking away, and by adding we create a new situation. And this question of addition instead of taking away, of demolishing, seems to have a similar philosophy to sustainability. It seems sustainable to use what already exists instead of taking it to the trash.
We should also not just do what is necessary but do more, be ambitious. We are following the evolution of architecture after the modern and contemporary periods, and we cannot do less than what was done in those times. At that time there was a tabula rasa, but there were also good conditions of living, and when I see some flats by Mies van der Rohe, by Hans Scharoun or by Alvar Aalto, I really believe that we should at least be able to the do the same in terms of the quality that we can give someone.
ICON: What would you say are the main traits that a contemporary dwelling, whether house or flat, should have?
JPV: Freedom, because I really believe in the capability of additional space, of undefined space: something that is not a bedroom or a living room or a bathroom, something else which doesn’t require a special function or a special need. And then you create a space with qualities that allow people to work and build on their wishes, whether to invite more people, to start sculpting and drawing, to keep a garden. And I think it’s very important, because there is the potential for creativity in everything.
ICON: When you talk about ‘undefined space’, it calls to mind your work on the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2014) and FRAC Dunkirk (2015), which also seem to centre around the idea of how space can provide a blank canvas for people.
JPV: Yes, it’s about creating a diversity of space, additional space. You should try every time to build – we call it the double – nearly the same quantity of extra space, of undefined space. And this exists in the Palais de Tokyo, but also in the School of Architecture in Nantes, and in the FRAC in Dunkirk, but also in each of the flats we expanded for their inhabitants. And sometimes in can be on the roof, sometimes it can be under the pilotis, sometimes it is a winter garden. But it is always where the extra space costs nearly nothing.
ICON: What are you working on now?
JPV: Actually, it’s a fight. We’re trying to push our ideas, as professors in Berlin and Zurich, and to impress them onto students. But we are not specialists in anything: we just like to see what the next opportunity is, in any city, in any country.