2021 Pritzker Prize Awarded To Architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal Often referred to as the "Nobel Prize of Architecture," this year's Pritzker was awarded to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, a design pair who emphasize reuse and equitable housing.
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2021 Pritzker Prize Goes To French Architects Who 'Work With Kindness'

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2021 Pritzker Prize Goes To French Architects Who 'Work With Kindness'

2021 Pritzker Prize Goes To French Architects Who 'Work With Kindness'

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The most prestigious award in architecture was announced this morning. The winners are two French architects whose work was described by the Pritzker Prize committee as humble. That's a compliment. But as NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us, this year's winners are redefining architecture by insisting on the usefulness of old, unlovely buildings.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal are the opposite of celebrity starchitects. They take ugly urban buildings such as public housing and they make them beautiful.

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ANNE LACATON: Buildings are beautiful when people feel well in them, when the light inside is beautiful and the air is pleasant.

ULABY: That's Lacaton during a lecture with Vassal at the Architectural League of New York in 2017. They met as idealistic architecture students in the 1970s. Their work is not about tearing stuff down, said Vassal.

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JEAN-PHILIPPE VASSAL: The idea is to add. We have to add to each situations - never subtract, always adding.

ULABY: So, for example, when the housing authority in Bordeaux invited the architects to reimagine a hideous public housing complex, the designers added more space - huge outdoor terraces with sliding-glass doors for every unit. Nobody had to move. The building's sleek, modern makeover won the ultimate compliment from Columbia University architecture professor Mabel O. Wilson.

MABEL O WILSON: I would love to live in one of their apartments.

ULABY: Such cost-efficient readaptation that respects where people live could be a model in the U.S., Wilson says. She's glad the Pritzker's rewarding architects preoccupied with inequity and waste, rather than splashy statements.

WILSON: And that's what I appreciate. It's not Gehry making something exceptional; it's actually making something unexceptional livable and making it aesthetically beautiful.

ULABY: Some critics had hoped this would be the first year a Black architect would win the Pritzker.

ANTONIO PACHECO: There is a huge list of Black architects and architects from all over the world who are deserving of the prize, absolutely, and who work in the same way.

ULABY: Architecture writer Antonio Pacheco points out the first Pritzker winner was Philip Johnson, whose legacy of racism is getting almost as much attention these days as his famous Glass House. Pacheco says the Pritzker also minimizes the teamwork and labor that goes into great buildings.

PACHECO: I think that's the other kind of blind spot that the Pritzker Prize continues to reinforce is this focus on the singular architect or the two partners.

ULABY: Architecture students today, says Pacheco, have turned away from heroes like the one in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." Instead, they look to designers like Lacaton and Vassal, who care about climate change and gentrification and see humans as a building's most important element.

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VASSAL: There's a lot of violence in architecture and urbanism.

ULABY: Jean-Philippe Vassal in 2017. He said the two start every project by focusing on what's positive about the buildings they are transforming.

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VASSAL: We try to be precise. We try to be delicate. We try to work with kindness.

ULABY: The architecture of kindness, radical and overdue.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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