What the 2021 Pritzker prize says about social value

Latapie House, Lacaton and Vassal

This week two French architects, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, won the Pritzker prize. In an often-cited 2004 manifesto they had called for architecture to “never demolish, never remove – always add, transform and reuse”.

“Il s’agit de ne jamais démolir, ne jamais retrancher ou remplacer, toujours ajouter, transformer et utiliser”. 

Lacaton and Vassal’s projects include social housing and art centers. The choice of awardees conveys an important message about the way that we build, at a time when we’re pushing against planetary limits while millions of people around the world still lack a decent place to live.

More of their approach may just help resolve the contradictions inherent in the facts that:

  • buildings (their construction and operation) already contribute around 40% of global carbon emissions…
  • while some projections have global floor space doubling by 2050 to accommodate growing populations and urbanization…
  • and while the 2021 Global Circularity Gap report highlights reducing floor space as the most important intervention in materials use, if we are going to meet the Paris climate targets.

Lacaton and Vassal also seem to have a clear approach to “value”. As the Guardian reported on their work: “They always begin with a forensic assessment of what is already there, and how it could be improved with a minimum of resources.” [my itals].

Currently there is a lot of discussion among built environment professionals – investors, architects, construction and engineering companies – about defining and creating “social value.” Often, however, these approaches jump straight to thinking about new social value that can be generated by a project – rather than value that may (most likely already does) exist in the place where it is being built, and that may well be destroyed in the process of building.

I pass a striking example of this lost value every day when I walk down 30th Avenue here in Astoria, Queens, New York City. Back in 2011 I interviewed one person a week along that street. Among the interviewees were the owners/managers of four stores along just one block – a party store, billiards hall, music store and jewelers – who hailed from Mexico, Colombia, Greece and Uzbekistan respectively (photo below). In 2017 all four stores were closed or relocated to make way for a new “mixed use” development. For the the past four years that new building has sat completely empty, waiting for occupiers.

When small places close down, it’s not only the stores we lose but the people who own, frequent and love them, and the experiences they create.

A lot of social value can’t be measured or quantified, and perhaps that’s the most precious value of all. I’m gradually documenting perspectives from people living in each of NYC’s 51 council districts about their priorities and visions for their neighborhoods, during this critical period as the city responds to COVID-19 and as local elections are underway. The first question I’m asking is “what place or building means a lot to you, and why?”. Moving towards the future shouldn’t mean erasing what’s important in the present.

George Phillips of Astoria Music, Elizabet Flores of La Bomboniera Marylu, Ralph and Yury Almaz of Almaz Brothers, and Carlos and Marta Sancelementi of Astoria Billiards Club, in 2011 from www.30thAve.org

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