Six projects to understand Lacaton & Vassal′s complex simplicity

A selection of the most distinctive projects of the Pritzker Prize-winning couple, authors of regenerative architecture for the well-being of users and the environment.

This article was originally published on Domus 1067, April 2022

In their professional partnership of over 30 years, Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal have viewed the theme of housing as one of their most demanding challenges, helping to establish the office’s outstanding hallmark.

With their designs of private and social housing, cultural and academic institutions, public spaces and urban redevelopments, they have cemented a working method based on fostering close ties between architecture and its users, as well as between architecture and the city. They have shown how important it is to be sensitive to places and communities, working patiently with the inhabitants to create an architecture that provides freedom, opportunities and comfort, all qualities able to improve the quality of life.

 Their works convey a specific concept of sustainability, developed in terms of direct relationships with the environment, using technologies and materials that recall agricultural and industrial contexts. An important factor in their architecture is adaptability, a design dimension that is open to new possibilities, including future uses yet to be defined. For Lacaton and Vassal, this assumption of responsibility entails consigning the results of their design work to a later time. Upholding the key principles of reinventing, transforming and reusing the existing for the pleasures of habitation, they experiment with a new way of conceiving the space of the home that is capable of responding to the environmental and social crisis.

Maison Latapie


The projects presented in this issue of Domus confirm these attitudes, starting from Maison Latapie in Floirac, built in 1993, and leading to a series of variants in their subsequent projects. The distinctive feature of the house is its double skin. The outer one made of galvanised metal and polycarbonate is translucent and ventilated, while the inner one, contained within the former, consists of a volume clad in opaque fibre-cement sheeting. The stated goal was to add an additional space to the house without increasing the budget. Half of the volume creates an environment that oscillates between interior and exterior and can be experienced in different ways to suit the seasons and the occupants’ needs.

Today, defending the pleasure of living seems like a decidedly political act. It is a necessity, a problem that has to be dealt with on the same level as an environmental priority.

Using simple components with an industrial character rather than resorting to complex technology, Lacaton and Vassal created a fluid space that is open to a range of uses. The refinement of their assembly defines spaces of great fascination with a precise personality.

Cité manifeste


This strand of research evolved into the first Cité manifeste project in Mulhouse. Lacaton & Vassal envisaged a building in which the prevailing formal element was a galvanised industrial structure encased in polycarbonate: a greenhouse-style architecture featuring a classic shallow-arched roof, a simple construction technique but one that creates large apertures and uncluttered spaces, with very few dividing elements. The additional space creates opportunities that the inhabitants are prompted to interpret freely, with unpredictable and changing uses over time.

The designers asked themselves, “How can we trigger an imaginative process? We always try to build a space that does not impose anything, that is nothing but pure freedom. We’re always optimistic about what can happen. We expect people to use the spaces and be inventive about finding possibilities of escape. How can we retreat from reality and always find a way out? By constantly clinging to the idea of an elsewhere, a dream.” With these concepts, the French studio has designed well-balanced and environmentally friendly housing, places for living, not appearing. In this idea of complex simplicity, needs come before aesthetics, and convenience and comfort are prioritised over form. 

Neppert Gardens


A few years later, again in Mulhouse, the practice reaffirmed the approach and objectives presented in the Cité manifeste design by developing another social housing project. Again it featured additional areas, intermediate between interior and exterior, with the homes expanding their potential for use and the range of spaces, as well as improving the internal micro-environment, with floor spaces up to 50 per cent larger than the usual standards. The south-east facing living rooms were extended with terraces, which can be closed in winter (to form an insulating buffer space) and opened in summer (using natural ventilation to avoid overheating). 

Lacaton and Vassal’s residential buildings are crystallised through their definition of a sense of place, in an intense relationship with the environment. They share a distinctive conception of domestic space where the landscape becomes scenery. Rejecting an idea of domesticity as a form of relinquishment, they reinterpret the concept of privacy by breaking down the external walls and creating new open spaces. Like machines revealing the environment surrounding them, the interiors display and incorporate the unexpressed potential of the peripheral landscapes in which they are set. The architectural strategies adopted – passive cooling systems and facings for protection from the sun – become tools for manipulating light and space, simple machines with a tactile and visual relationship that can be opened (and closed where necessary), but that also enrich the spatial experience of the inhabitants.

La Chesnaie


As the architects explain: “Today, defending the pleasure of living seems like a decidedly political act. It is a necessity, a problem that has to be dealt with on the same level as an environmental priority. Space is a common good, just like sunshine, air or light. It’s a vital material. As architects, we all need to treat it as such.” The rational structures and clear geometries of their architecture contribute to the construction of a distinctive spatial quality, one capable of bringing out the specific character of the content.

The recent transformation of the Chêne-Bourg district in the canton of Geneva confirms this principle. The spacious homes are pleasant, well lit and cooled by air passing through them thanks to their dual aspect. Large sliding floor-toceiling windows enable the interiors to establish new sightlines with the landscape. In this project again, the bioclimatic envelope of the winter gardens and thermal curtains help to create a pleasant microclimate in all seasons.

Tour Opale (Halte Ceva)


Their designs contain spaces with distinctive qualities, which are encapsulated in their projects for transforming the residential heritage in disuse, making the work of Lacaton and Vassal internationally recognisable.

Space is a common good, just like sunshine, air or light. It’s a vital material. As architects, we all need to treat it as such.

The first project that concretely dealt with this issue was the unprecedented redevelopment project for the Tour Bois le Prêtre. Here an apparently simple and straightforward operation enlarged the apartments by adding loggias, expanding the physical boundaries of the building along with its inhabitants’ mental boundaries, producing a radical improvement in the housing conditions. This move not only improved the quality of the individual units but also had a knock-on effect on the whole neighbourhood by projecting a new image of the building and creating a sense of pride in the community. Since then, their research has continued in the belief that transformation provides an opportunity to offer more and better housing by reusing what already exists. 

Grand Parc


A significant example is the transformation of an apartment building in the La Chesnaie district of Saint-Nazaire. Redevelopment of the 40 dwellings was accompanied by the construction of a second building. The existing and the new relate to each other in an open dialogue, in which the overlapping of the two structures favours unexpected developments, with unforeseen uses of the interiors and unusual models of user behaviour.

More recently, thanks to the convincing success of these projects, the experiment was continued in the transformation of 530 apartments distributed in three buildings constituting the first lot of the extensive Grand Parc complex in Bordeaux. They again offered a complete reinterpretation of the structure, without displacing the inhabitants during the renovation work, presenting a remarkable new image of the social housing complex that stressed linearity, lightness and rigour

Anne Lacaton e Jean Phillippe Vassal. Foto © Philippe Ruault
Anne Lacaton and Jean Phillippe Vassal. Photo © Philippe Ruault

With an attentive gaze that is respectful of the different situations encountered, Lacaton and Vassal’s residential projects present a lesson in humility, seriousness and intelligence. They work by small adjustments rather than grand proclamations, pursuing a coherent series of subtle variations capable of producing unforeseen discoveries. This approach to design renders the living space both reassuring and unexpected, capable of articulating collective relational spaces and protecting the indispensable intimate and private dimension of housing, while magically relating it to the landscape. This kind of space can affect us emotionally by building that “atmosphere” that Peter Zumthor considers vital and necessary in defining a building’s qualities.

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