Regarded as the Nobel Prize of the architecture world, the Pritzker Prize has been awarded every year since 1979 to an architect whose work facilitates a new perspective on the built environment. Previous recipients include architecture greats such as Zaha Hadid, Peter Zumthor, Rem Koolhaas and the ETH professors Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.
The choice of Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal adds to the illustrious list of prize winners an architectural duo who, according to the jury, strive though their buildings to improve the lives of as many people as possible. In the eyes of the jury, the French architectural team’s work is unique in the way it succeeds in responding both to the climatic and environmental needs of our time, and to social priorities. This approach is particularly apparent in the area of urban housing.
Anne Lacaton is only the sixth woman to receive the Pritzker Prize, and the first female ETH professor to win an award as prestigious on the international stage as the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal.
Renovation over demolition
Lacaton was born in 1955 in Saint-Pardoux in France. She met her partner Vassal, who was born in 1954 in Casablanca, while studying in Bordeaux in the 1970s. The two opened an architecture office in Paris in 1987 and have since worked together on more than 30 projects in Europe and Africa, the most renowned of which was the renovation and expansion of the Palais de Tokyo exhibition building in the French capital.
Lacaton and Vassal decided early on to focus on sustainable architecture, working with existing structures wherever possible – they have never demolished a building to construct a new one in its place. This approach means that the two have converted many existing buildings into new and often affordable living spaces.
“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,” Lacaton told the New York Times. “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.”
The humility of not knowing
Lacaton was appointed an associate professor of architecture and design by the Department of Architecture in 2017. She emphasised to her students repeatedly that architects must be ready embrace new things.
“In all our projects, we start from the perspective that we know nothing about the context in which we will be building,” said Lacaton in an ETH Globe article last year. “That forces us to really open our eyes and find our own way of responding appropriately to the situation.” She calls this the “humility of not knowing”. And this philosophy is part of the reason why the professor, who retired from ETH in 2020, has now been recognised with the most prestigious award in architecture.