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Mending their ways

Oliver Wainwright

Working with what you’ve got can be very effective

‘Do nothing,’ was the response of French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal to Bordeaux municipal authorities when asked to redesign one of the city’s public squares. ‘It works perfectly well as it is.’

The small patch of land already had the necessary ingredients of shade, provided by a group of trees, a few benches and a scrubby area where elderly locals enjoyed playing pétanque. ‘Anything we could have proposed would have made it worse,’ says Vassal. ‘When you go to the doctor, they might tell you you’re fine, that you don’t need any medicine. Architecture should be the same. If you take time to observe and look very precisely, sometimes the answer is to do nothing.’

It might be unusual for an architect to turn down a commission, but then Lacaton & Vassal isn’t your typical practice. It is adamant when it comes to priorities, particularly about where its clients’ money should be spent.

‘We want to make more and better with less,’ says Lacaton. ‘We try to intervene with maximum delicacy. We see economy as another material in the architect’s palette.’

Lecturing in London recently, the duo filled their presentations with numbers and explained how easily you can build a 130m2 home for the same price as a 70m2 one, if you are clever with the budget. The project in question was a group of 14 homes for social rent, in Mulhouse in France, taking the form of a group of proprietary horticultural greenhouses erected on a simple concrete tabletop – built for just €75,000 per unit. The elegant result gives residents a basic but light and spacious open-plan shell, which they have duly customised to individual needs. ‘We offered to build partitions if residents wanted them,’ says Vassal. ‘Two years on, no one requested them.’

They argued that for the €167,000 per unit the state was allocating for demolition and rebuilding, they could redesign, expand and upgrade three of the same size

In the early 2000s the French government published a country-wide estate regeneration plan which proposed to spend €15bn on demolishing 150,000 flats and replacing them with 5,000 fewer homes. Lacaton & Vassal, together with fellow architect Frédéric Druot, published an alternative manifesto.

‘Never demolish, remove or replace; always add, transform, and reuse’ was their rallying cry. They argued that for the €167,000 per unit the state was allocating for demolition and rebuilding, they could redesign, expand and upgrade three of the same size.

They first demonstrated their strategy on the 16-storey Tour Bois-le-Prêtre in Paris, a 1960s tower block which they wrapped with a second skin, extending the floor plates of each apartment and providing new winter gardens and full-height windows – reducing energy consumption by half in the process.

The trio’s latest project is the biggest yet, tackling 530 apartments in three blocks on the 1960s Grand Parc estate in Bordeaux. They have erected freestanding, precast concrete structures along the facades of the slab blocks, extending the floor plate by almost 4m. Again, mean windows are opened out with full-height glazing, and partition walls sawn away to allow flexible occupation. In a miracle of clever programming and site efficiency, residents could remain in their homes throughout. The cost of this wizardry? Just €65,000 per home – roughly half that of building new.

The approach provides a crucial model at a time when many UK council estates are facing demolition or being vandalised with crass infill and over-building schemes that show little understanding of the value of what is already there. Too many local authorities are being forced to adopt commercial development models, building flats for private sale on public land to cross-subsidise the construction of ‘affordable’ homes – and usually ending up with a net loss of social rented units overall.

It is the duty of councils and architects, says Vassal, ‘to work with each plant, family, or situation that is already there. And be extremely precise.’ 

Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian