Modern cities like Sydney becoming ‘ghettos of rich people’,architects warn

Modern cities such as Sydney are becoming “ghettos of rich people” where few working people can afford to live,award-winning architects Jean-Philippe Vassal and Anne Lacaton warn.

Known as the “never demolish” architects,Vassal and Lacatonwon the Pritzker Prize,the world’s most prestigious architectural prize,in 2021 for a series of projects where they refused to raze existing public housing,apartment blocks and museums.

Visiting French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal at The Rocks in Sydney.

Visiting French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal at The Rocks in Sydney.Nick Moir

At workshops at Sydney University this week,the visiting French architects encouraged architecture students to reimagine a future for Waterloo estate’s public housing –slated for redevelopment and future demolition.

The brief:don’t destroy anything. Not even a tree.

In a public lecture at the Seymour Centre on Thursday night,Lacaton said they believed “architects should never demolish,never subtract,never remove,always add and transform”. They see demolition as an act of violence,and a waste of energy,history and materials.

In one case,they refused to do a fancy update of a triangular piazza in Bordeaux,France,after consulting locals who were happy with the old,dusty square. They told officials,“Embellishment has no place here.”

Vassal told theHerald that the quality of a city was determined by a diversity of residents,incomes and jobs.

Cities had become “speculative spaces” because of the rising value of land compared with the relatively low cost of construction.

“They are becoming places only for tourists,” he said. Workers,artists and craftspeople and others on low income had been pushed out. “Most of the time we talk about ghettos of poor people,but the biggest problem is ghettos of rich people.”

In the public lecture,Lacaton and Vassal outlined the philosophy that has guided them for nearly 40 years.

Rather than starting with the premise that something should be demolished,such as existing public housing in France,they started by interviewing residents to see what they valued,and what they saw as the problems.

“Living well in the big city is the most important challenge of our time and our generation,” Lacaton said. “This issue involves many crucial topics and challenges,such as climate change,sustainability,energy savings,cost of the land,densification,affordability,integration,social equality and,simply,quality of life. Any strategy for making the city starts from the quality of housing for all.”

Speaking in turn at the Seymour,the couple – in life as well as work – said they believed good design began with kindness,love and respect for residents of all incomes.

Vassal said they aimed to double living space for residents in public housing,often achieving that at less than half the cost of demolition and rebuilding and without the cost to the climate.

Working with architect Frederic Druot,the couple transformed a 1960s Parisian public housing block and increased the size of each unit by removing the concrete facade,and adding balconies. In other housing projects,they have restored the original blocks and added new units on the grounds in a similar style.

Buildings are beautiful when people feel well in them and,when people feel well at home,they were better able to participate in society,Lacaton said.

The architects,with Frederic Druot,transformed a 1960s Parisian public housing block and increased the size of each unit.

The architects,with Frederic Druot,transformed a 1960s Parisian public housing block and increased the size of each unit.Courtesy Philippe Ruault

That could explain why Vassal said architects should see themselves as “kind of like doctors of the city” and get out into the city to find and solve problems,instead of waiting in the office for commissions.

The couple developed their philosophy in the 1980s as new graduates visiting Nigeria,where they built their first home – a straw hut with a thatched roof – out of what few materials they could find. They added a shaded area to sit with friends outside.

“Transforming the city means coming back to what we learnt in Africa,and using what already exists,” Vassal told the audience at the Seymour. “It means making do,with the people,with the climate,with minimum materials. It means trees,soil,flowers,animals,all should be considered with delicacy and kindness,so it is never possible to cut a tree.”

It also meant building larger,even double,at the same cost,Vassal continued. They achieved this by using inexpensive materials.

The goal? Vassal said:“To feel that incredible moment when you are at home in an armchair,and you open the window and look at the clouds. A dwelling should always be more than the minimum.”

Lacaton and Vassal were appointed the inaugural Garry and Susan Rothwell Chairs in Architectural Design Leadership at Sydney University in 2020,but because of the pandemic this is their first visit.

Sydney University architecture student Sophia Swift said it had been incredible to learn from them. “It has been inspiring,” she said. “Just the notion of not demolishing is a really important foundation for the way an architect moves forward,particularly in response to human-driven climate change.”

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Julie Power is a senior reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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