Pioneers of sustainable architecture

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal met while studying in Bordeaux in the 1970

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal met while studying in Bordeaux in the 1970s and opened an architecture office in Paris in 1987. (Image: ETH Zurich)

ETH Professor Emeritus Anne Lacaton and her partner Jean-Philippe Vassal have received this year’s Pritzker Prize for their social and sustainable architecture. The prize is regarded as the Nobel Prize of the architecture world. ETH celebrated this success on Wednesday with a virtual event of honour, which was attended by ETH President JoŽl Mesot as well as the two prize winners.

Every building is a reflection of the economic, social and cultural values of its time. Sometimes, however, architecture can be ahead of its time. In this case, it not only reflects social conditions, but also helps to change them. The sustainable and social architecture practised by Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal falls into this category. And this is why the Parisian architectural duo was awarded the Pritzker Prize in March.

Anne Lacaton is only the sixth woman to receive the Pritzker Prize, and the first female ETH professor to win an award that is so renowned on the international stage. ETH celebrated this exceptional achievement on Wednesday with an event of honour, which was attended by the two prize winners, ETH President JoŽl Mesot and over 500 additional guests.

Both sustainable and social

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal decided early on to focus on sustainable architecture. Long before it became popular, they had the courage to rehabilitate existing buildings in an economical and considerate way, said ETH Professor Christophe Girot in his speech. To this day, the two have never demolished a building to construct a new one in its place.

"Lacaton and Vassal’s designs have always been an expression of their social and ecological convictions. They point the way towards a coherent simplicity in architecture that places the focus on the residents of the building," Girot explained. Guided by the mission of creating the greatest possible space for people with as little material as possible, their buildings provide convincing evidence that sustainable architecture can also be social.

Humility as an architectural approach

Lacaton was appointed an associate professor of architecture and design by the Department of Architecture in 2017. Her influence on her environment during her three years at ETH is expressed in a video message that was shown during the event. In the film, former students, staff and colleagues describe the architect as an extremely open, respectful and humble person. Whether celebrity architect or first-year student, Anne Lacaton has always responded to others with equal curiosity and attention.

Humility and openness also underlie her architectural approach - her architecture is empathetic, not pretentious. Only those who approach a place and its conditions with an open mind and first accept their own ignorance will be able to develop appropriate structural solutions. This attitude, says ETH President JoŽl Mesot, should be more common, not only in architecture but also in science in general.

Christoph Elhardt

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