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

Day laborers on the frontlines during COVID-19

A health and safety training course for women construction workers at WJP’s worker center in Williamsburg, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through New York City, day laborers in construction are among those who bear the brunt of the impacts.

It took time for non-essential construction to be halted, and now that it has, construction on many sites continues – continuing to expose workers to the virus while the city is urging people stay at home.

A day after the order to stop work on non-essential sites took effect, for example, the buildings department received more than 900 appeals from developers and contractors, arguing their projects should count as essential.

Migrant construction workers often lack the safety protections, sick-pay, and union protections that help hold contractors accountable.

In this context, worker centers like the Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn play a crucial role. The Rights Here Project interviewed Ligia Guallpa, Executive Director of WJP, for Urban Omnibus. Read the full interview here.

As Ligia says: “We have built a strong community that understands the power of organizing and solidarity in times like this. Far too often, low-wage immigrant workers, who do not have access to available safety net programs, are left out of disaster responses while bearing the brunt of the difficult and dangerous work that comes in the wake of these disasters.”

Ligia has a clear vision for the future:

“My hope is that we can build a stronger workers’ movement: that there is a pathway for unionizing immigrant workers; that we build a new economy where there are opportunities for communities of color; that the construction industry becomes an industry of opportunity for women and communities of color; and that these jobs that are safer and more dignified for everybody.”

Read the full interview: “A Safe Space”, in Urban Omnibus

Several of the city’s worker centers have relief funds, for example:

Workers Justice Project, in Brooklyn
La Colmena, in Staten Island
NICE, in Queens