Architecture as change agent: Reflections on chairing the Mies Award jury

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My time as chairwoman of the Mies van der Rohe Award jury has come to an end.

Together with the rest of the jury, I recently granted Europe’s most powerful and prestigious architecture prize to my French colleagues Lacaton & Vassal architects, Frédéric Druot Architecture and Christophe Hutin Architecture. All were they honored for their transformation of Grand Parc Bordeaux, a social housing development of 530 dwellings in southwestern France.

Along with the earlier announcement of this year’s finalists, this reflects a needed change in the architectural discourse, from focusing on aesthetics and function only, to focusing on social impact, on setting new agendas, inventing new typologies, pushing boundaries, etc. It proves that a long period of uncertainty in architecture is now transforming into radicality, optimism and generosity.

The transformation of the Grand Parc Bordeaux points in the direction of reuse and putting people first as key to future sustainable design and building. European architecture is moving in the right direction. Architecture has (regained) its role as a powerful change agent in society.

Minimum means, maximum effect

The Grand Parc Bordeaux project challenges, and at the same time embraces, the existing European housing stock from the post war period. Instead of demolishing buildings and people’s homes and everyday life, the project utilizes the advantages of transforming the existing buildings.

It may seem logic, or simple even, to add a new “layer” or a second façade to the building, and by this increase the intake of daylight and total floor area of each apartment. Yet, way too often architects tend to go about this type of renovation project as “business as usual” with general upgrades.

With their “building extension”, Lacaton & Vassal and their team foster dignity and provide added value to the individual as well as the collective and secure the almost 60-year-old buildings a longer lifetime. Despite a very low budget, the architects manage to add not only square meters, but true architectural value, to each housing unit. And they do so without even having to relocate the residents during construction.

This is fundamentally what architecture is about. This is the reason why I eagerly promote an experimental approach to architecture.

Humane architecture

The five finalists for the Mies van der Rohe Award 2019 are characterized by a strong will to make a change. Not only do the projects show a thorough understanding of architectural quality and a high level of expertise. They also set new standards for architecture as discipline.

That we award the Mies van der Rohe Award to a social housing development is one point to the story. The professional capacity and precision with which the project has come to live is another. I admire the Lacaton & Vassal team’s curiosity and willingness to do things differently and better.

They represent a humanistic approach to architecture, showing care and respect for the people inhabiting their projects, and I hope they will inspire future renovations of the many, many housing blocks built in the 1960’s and 70’s throughout Europe.

Chairing the Mies van der Rohe Award jury has been an amazing journey. Thank you so much for putting your trust in me.


Photo credits: Anna Mas and Philippe Ruault