Retrofit champion Lacaton & Vassal wins Soane Medal 2023

French architectural practice Lacaton & Vassal has been awarded the Soane Medal 2023 for its sustainable and ‘holistic approach to buildings’ and for avoiding unnecessary waste in its schemes.

image for illustration: Sir John Soane –
Thomas Lawrence, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

…[Sir John Soane] not only used his house as a place of experimentation, but to inspire and educate…

Sir John Soane’s Museum writes:

….For over 30 years, architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal – winners of the 2023 Soane Medal – have been celebrated for their honest design approach, both in new buildings and renovations. Through the resourceful repurposing of materials and existing structures, Lacaton & Vassal transform buildings in a way which prioritises the needs of residents and local communities, while remaining sensitive to environmental concerns. The pursuit of continued architectural improvement underpins their work, demonstrating the importance of architecture in people’s lives. This was central to Sir John Soane’s own mission, who not only used his house as a place of experimentation, but to inspire and educate those who visited on architecture’s role in society….

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Build with what is already there

The existing environment – its vegetation, uses, views or constructions – provides the foundation for all of our projects. We always try to build upon existing environments as sensitively as possible. Adding to, joining, expanding, superimposing and spanning the existing structure are in themselves a source of economy and efficiency.


The challenges of contemporary society have led us to a culture of interpreting and transforming the existing environment. The idea of virgin territory no longer exists.

The point is to extol the capacities of what already exists, providing a new look for the city.


Our approach is to regenerate the city based on the application of precise additions. We transform what already exists, with the juxtaposition of new spaces, followed by the reactivation of neighbouring public spaces. We abide by a golden rule: what comes after should always be better than what was there before.


Superimposing two situations, temporalities or uses allows us to cross over into a third space, to create new environments. The more a space generates multiple and combined imaginative worlds, the more stimulating it seems to be as a place to live and triggers new relationships.


In contrast to standard urban planning focused on mass, we believe in the effectiveness of a precision urbanism where the unit value is each individual inhabited space and not the entire block. Based on mobility and relationships, any architectural layout is an act of urbanism.


Beyond its functional dimension, inhabiting a building is about the pleasure, generosity and freedom of occupying a space.

It challenges us to think about the possibilities around us both now and in the future. Architecture is about building multitudes of possibilities for use, a continuous series of connected and intersected fragments.

From the inside out

Designing architecture on the basis of the notion of what it will be like to inhabit means constructing space from the inside not from the outside, which avoids creating a sense of distance or detachment. This inverted perspective is in opposition to the idea of form or image. The intention of creating a building from the inside out is one of precision, attention and lightness.


Offering the inhabitant opportunities for movement, engagement and emotional investment allows the story of an architectural work to continue in an exciting way. By introducing freedom of interpretation to our projects, we aim to generate possibilities for evolution.


Large spaces inspire an essential feeling of escape, fostering relationships within themselves and creating pleasurable situations. Enlarging does not mean wasting. It means inventing space. Inventing new uses. And breaking the norms which are reducing living spaces more and more.


The notion of lightness in architecture is of great importance to us. It relates to how we intervene in a site without damaging it. It relates to economy of gesture and material, as well as the individual sensations experienced by each inhabitant.


Our approach to climate is based on exchange with the environment and not in isolation. It calls for a principle of open structure, mobility and transparency. We seek to make the most of natural elements – the sun and air – and outside inertia, while allowing users to produce their own climate. The space should be like a flexible piece of clothing that provides the best conditions for wellbeing.


We always strive to combine the largest possible capacity of a structure with efficiency in its execution and low cost of materials. The intersection of these economies increases the overall experience of the project and allows for a more ambitious scale. We consider economy to be a catalyst for liberty.

….The city of Bordeaux had launched a programme to brighten up its public squares.

What could we do for Place Léon Aucoc?

It is a triangular space, surrounded by trees, with benches and an area for playing pétanque.

Around it stand houses with sober but well-designed façades. The square’s beauty comes from its authenticity and lack of sophistication: it has the beauty of something obvious, necessary, appropriate.

People seem to be at home in this square, enjoying the calm, harmonious atmosphere.

On our first visit we got the feeling that this square was already beautiful because it’s true to itself, lacking in finesse.

It possesses a beauty that is obvious, necessary, right. Its meaning is clear.

We spent a long time here, observing what was going on and speaking with the residents.

What does brightening up mean in this context?

What would be the point in replacing the ground, or in updating the undamaged benches and street lamps with other, newer designs?

There was no need for such changes. Quality, charm and life are already there.

The square is already beautiful.

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