In his recent keynote lecture at the annual Architecture Day seminar, French architect Jean-Philippe Vassal of Lacaton & Vassal Architectes challenged the audience to rethink about the concept of luxury in housing. The following interview with him was originally published in Finnish in Arkkitehtiuutiset 2/2016.
Architect Jean-Philippe Vassal gave a presentation at an Architecture Day seminar held in Helsinki on 3 February. His lecture focused on concrete-built suburb renovation projects, which genuinely highlight the desire to improve the quality of living, starting with apartments.
Jean-Philippe Vassal graduated as an architect in 1980, after which he worked as a land use planner in Niger for a period of five years. In 1987, he established his own office, Lacaton & Vassal Architectes, together with Anne Lacaton in Bordeaux, the town where he studied. The agency currently employs approximately 15 architects. Operations were transferred to Paris in 2000 for work availability reasons.
You design plenty of apartments and specifically renovation projects. How do you feel about apartment design, where you go to the residents’ domain?
“To me, housing and living form a single complex. An apartment is part of its environment, the overall feel of the city, and has a connection with the city. Then again, we have also designed offices and university buildings where employees spend more time than they do at home in the daytime. This way, these buildings are subject to similar criteria of living quality and comfort. Apartments should have direct access outdoors via a balcony or a terrace – why shouldn’t offices, too?
Luxury does not mean fancy construction materials or expensive plumbing fixtures, but spaciousness, diverse usability and the availability of options.
Every project is different and individual. The architect’s most important task is to offer opportunities to the user. Architects must understand the required scope of the design process and when to stop designing. We have naturally taken the design of a luxury hotel or the café of an architectural centre much further, with more attention to detail, than, for example, a suburb renovation project.
Residents add their own elements to apartments – including the balconies and terraces, which we have added to many properties to improve the quality of living. The architect cannot and should not control such elements. I find this entirely positive. A building changes constantly: its facade varies according to the time of day and year, or even based on whether the residents are home or not.
Our goal is to maximise comfort, to provide a kind of everyday luxury. Luxury does not mean fancy construction materials or expensive plumbing fixtures, but spaciousness, diverse usability and the availability of options. Our suburban apartment building projects do not comprise basic repairs. Rather, they are transformations specifically intended to add spaciousness and outdoor access from apartments. The objective is to produce the optimal results at an affordable, reasonable price. In many of our target properties, basic renovations were last completed in the 1980s and in the spirit of minimalism. The projects often failed to improve living quality or increase the residents’ living options – at worst, and regrettably often, quite the contrary was the case.
We have designed new rooms, balconies and external elevators for many apartment buildings at a very moderate cost, highlighting the diversity of housing and increasing apartment user options. Unheated balcony zones, winter gardens, have become the most diversely exploited and most used facilities in such buildings. The energy-efficiency of the buildings has simultaneously improved, with a new zone outside the building’s frame.
Instead of completing the usual facade renovation and triple window glazing, a new facade interface is created at the external edge of this zone. In the summer, it is open and the zone of balconies provides shade. In the winter, the closed zone protects the building as additional insulation. This way, the temperature of the insulated facade is 7–8 degrees warmer than the air outside. Under the conditions in France, this is an energy-efficient solution even on the walls facing north.”
What are your current work methods? What role do architectural competitions play in your work?
“Our employees impact the practical aspect of design work. Particularly young designers like to use the most recent IT applications, while some others prefer traditional tools. We actually draw very little and produce practically no miniatures. Drawings and miniatures do not support our design methods, which entail plenty of discussion.
We also think about references, and I am constantly trying to find good, functional solutions in our environment. The development of modernism failed. At the beginning of my lecture I talked about the Interbau apartment designed by Alvar Aalto in Berlin. Those beautiful apartments coil around the balconies. It is sad that this was possible six decades ago, while contemporary minimalistic living solutions have nothing new to offer in terms of housing quality or the options provided within apartments – the current trend is actually to settle for much less. Little is accomplished when the bare minimum becomes a standard.
Apartments should have direct access outdoors via a balcony or a terrace – why shouldn’t offices, too?
As a rule, we only regularly participate in tendering by invitation. I think it is a good method for customers who want to map out their options, but I do not like to tender. Open idea competitions in particular are superficial and easily highlight an object-based approach.
We try to meet the needs of the users and commissioners and strive for an in-depth understanding of each assignment. The architect is responsible for understanding the big picture. He or she needs to consult other people during each project, but must set all objectives in an understanding with the commissioner. This is difficult to do in an architectural competition, unless you invest a disproportionate amount of time. Of course, we have received many fine interesting assignments through competitions.”
Your business partner Anne Lacaton gave a lecture entitled “Elephant and Butterfly” at an Alvar Aalto symposium. In her article, she described your architectural objective as being light and temporary like a butterfly rather than heavy and almost eternal like an elephant. Does this still hold true 15 years on?
“It does, although many construction regulations and methods steer us towards heavy solutions. In my opinion, architectural thinking requires a light approach as well as simple materials and solutions. The idea and solution must be clear and simple – light in its own way.
It is completely absurd that people are simultaneously talking about sustainable development and demolishing concrete suburbs. Our projects have been extremely cost-effective and have converted concrete buildings into an element of a new, more serviceable complex. This is ecologically justified, too. The starting points of all architectural design must be to take what we have and find a way to refine the related opportunities.”
Jean-Philippe Vassal spoke at the ’A Home for All: Architecture Day Seminar’ on 3 February 2016 in Helsinki. The annual Architecture Day, organised now for the 4th time, is jointly produced by t he Architecture Information Centre Finland, the Finnish Association of Architects SAFA, the Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Alvar Aalto Museum.
See the full programme here.