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Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal Win The Pritzker Prize

If you pay attention to the architecture world, you’ve seen a notice about this year’s Pritzker winners and some discussion of the goals they work towards in their practice. I’ll summarize it below, but given the amount that has been written, you’re better off looking elsewhere for details. I want to discuss what their work, and the well-deserved prize, means in the context of general building reuse.

The picture above, by Philippe Ruault, is a view of their Palais de Tokyo project, which I like because, you know, trusses. You can read about their prize at the Pritzker site, at the Architect’s Newspaper, at Arch Daily, at Dwell, at the New York Times, at the Guardian, and at Le Monde, among others. From the Times:

“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,” said Lacaton, 65. “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.”

Vassal, 67, said they even once constructed a building around a forest — always making sure to integrate the natural landscape and preserve the past. “Never demolish, never cut a tree, never take out a row of flowers,” he said. “Take care of the memory of things that were already there, and listen to the people that are living there.”

There’s a lot just in those two paragraphs. I don’t believe it’s possible for everyone in the design and construction community to never demolish a building. There will be times when the social costs of keeping buildings – not allowing more development in areas short on housing, spending money to rebuild an ordinary building that’s near the point of collapse – will outweigh the benefits. But Lacaton and Vassal represent one end of a spectrum of choices and their work suggests that end of the spectrum is not necessarily so radical. Carl Elefante was right when he said “The greenest building is the one that already exists” and the construction project that is least disruptive to a town or neighborhood is the one that keeps the existing buildings and repurposes them.

To put this line of thought in context, I live in New York, which has rather famously devoured its own built environment for close to 400 years. We don’t just have vanishingly few Buidling left from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we have surprisingly few from the first half of the nineteenth. While writing The Structure of Skyscrapers, I had a hard time finding pictures of some 1880s and 1890s skyscrapers – buildings that were famous when built – because they were torn down so long ago.

I grew up in Queens and during my lifetime (so far) the borough has added roughly 300,000 new residents, which would not have been possible without the construction of new apartment houses on sites formerly occupied by single-family houses. There is no form of adaptive reuse that will turn a 1200-square-foot wood-frame house into 30 usable apartments. So a balance must be struck between what’s needed in terms of space and whether the existing building stock can provide it. The thing that gets to me the most is when a usable, fixable building is demolished for no good reason. Demolished when it could be repaired. Demolished when it could be reused. Demolished when its replacement is no bigger, offers nothing more to future occupants than a restoration would have, and is built to depreciate in 30 years rather than to be maintained indefinitely. We may have the physical and financial ability to treat every building as disposable, but that doesn’t make it right in terms of energy use, resource use, carbon liberated, or people’s feelings about their hometown.