TThis week, the highest honor in the world of architecture went to a pair of Parisian designers better known for revitalizing existing buildings than creating new ones. The Pritzker Prize, which includes a top prize of $ 100,000, went to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, whose most impressive projects – the Tokyo palace in Paris, the improvement of three social housing blocks in Bordeaux and the extension of a warehouse in Dunkirk to form an art complex are all renovations.
It is the first time in the 46-year history of the award that modernization, the practice of upgrading buildings rather than tearing them down to start over, has triumphed. Lacaton & Vassal’s victory has shaken the architectural profession and signals a remarkable shift in priorities among the world’s best city builders. If more widely adopted, this could transform the way buildings are regenerated everywhere.
Architecture is typically obsessed with novelty. A seemingly endless parade of industry awards floods the gleaming new buildings with applause and praise. Like contemporary art, architecture thrives on the idea of originality, devaluing work that seems derivative. This thirst for novelty produces some innovative buildings, but it also results in numerous glittery baubles that seem designed primarily for Instagram feeds.
The humble and non-photogenic work of restoring, repairing, maintaining and upgrading existing buildings is rarely celebrated among city building professionals. Despite the foreground renovation campaigns since the Architects Diary Y others, awards are routinely given to new buildings of questionable merit, even when older properties and community facilities are neglected.
Too often, beautiful buildings serving valuable community functions, like the one in Sheffield, have been demolished. Hyde park property made under city architect John Lewis Womersley, and Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon 1966 Tricorn Center in Portsmouth, both lost battles against demolition proposals with disastrous environmental consequences.
Construction is one of the most polluting activities in the UK economy. The vast majority of emissions it causes come from a combination of heating existing buildings and energy expended on demolition and new construction. Currently, the sector emits the equivalent of 186 megatons of carbon dioxide per year. According to the UK Green Building Council, to meet Britain’s obligations under the 2008 Paris agreement, that level must be cut by more than half by 2025 and halved again by 2050 – a challenge. Huge for a notoriously slow industry.
Part of what makes this particularly difficult is that building almost anything requires large amounts of energy. While new buildings can now be very energy efficient, the materials and processes required to build them in the first place generate emissions so high that the net impact of new buildings is often arguably worse than building nothing at all. It’s a carbon trap – existing British buildings are not energy efficient enough to be sustainable, but tearing them down and erecting new ones will also emit more carbon than we can afford.
Lacaton & Vassal’s Pritzker victory suggests a solution. The key to aligning the environmental impact of architecture with planetary boundaries is to dramatically improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings and radically reduce new construction. In other words: fewer demolitions, more renovations.
However, despite the ecological merits of the redevelopment, many UK local authorities consistently support demolition strategies (strangely, new construction is tax free, while modernization is not). City councils often favor tearing down entire neighborhoods and rebuilding them from scratch, rather than updating existing architecture. In Liverpool, for example, the controversial housing market renovation initiative saw hundreds of good quality townhouses. flattened to make way for development.
Although endemic in the UK, this hugely inefficient and highly polluting model is exactly the kind of shortsighted practice that Lacaton & Vassal, with fellow French architect Frédéric Druot, attacked in their 2007 manifesto, Plus. In Plus, the designers condemned demolition-driven architecture, declaring “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse!”
This rallying cry is diametrically opposed to most British regeneration projects. For example, instead of transforming and reusing your 1974 Central Library, Birmingham worn out town hall 200 million pounds building a new library and tearing down the adjacent original in 2013. The project was so expensive that two years later, the city’s glamorous new library was forced to cut its opening hours and staff in almost half.
The central case study of Plus is that of Lacaton & Vassal remodeling of a residential tower from the 1960s on the Boulevard du Bois le Prêtre in Paris. The 96-apartment building had been rebuilt in the 1990s and the municipality was about to tear down the tower. The architects proposed to keep the building and use the money that would have been spent to finance its demolition and reconstruction to bolt pre-fab conservatories to its facades.
The resulting building provided each resident with more interior space, huge new windows, and generous balconies. Cost 62% less than a demolition-based approach would have done. Revitalized Tower now runs on 60% less energy; Overall, the redevelopment required 74% less energy than would have been used to demolish and rebuild the block.
Adopting Lacaton & Vassal’s anti-demolition tactics would not only reduce emissions, but also protect communities and heritage. The construction of new buildings is often called “regeneration”, but often it couldn’t be further from that. The demolition of existing buildings often divides communities that have taken generations to form. Often times, the regeneration of new facilities simply replaces older facilities that degenerated due to lack of funds or were closed or relocated in previous decades.
Much better would be a Lacaton & Vassal-style strategy to maintain and improve the buildings. Imagine, for example, if in the London Borough of Lambeth, where the council plans knock down Rosemary Stjernstedt’s Central Hill Estate (one of Britain’s few modern masterpieces designed by an architect), with 450 houses, an approach based on renovation was chosen rather than total demolition. Families would not be displaced, buildings could be efficiently upgraded, carbon emissions would be drastically reduced.
Lacaton & Vassal’s generous green renovations, now revered by the highest award in the profession, are a lesson in how we can control the carbon emissions of British architecture and protect communities from the wrecking ball. Less demolition. Less new construction. Instead, epic world-class mods.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism