Architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal of Lacaton & Vassal are known for their delicate interventions, repurposing neglected structures with apparent effortlessness. As Corydon Ireland notes in the Harvard Gazette, “They practice social architecture based on economy, modesty, and the found beauty of environments.” These core concepts can be seen in Lacaton & Vassal’s treatment of an old boat warehouse called Halle AP2 in Dunkirk, France. Rather than tearing down the structure to build a new space to house the FRAC’s contemporary art collections, the architects sought to tap the potential of this “immense, bright, and impressive” volume. As a way to both recognize the old Halle and catalyze the growth of a new cultural center, Lacaton & Vassal kept the original building in its entirety, complementing it with a ghostly double that lies directly adjacent. Notably, the new structure features a light, bio-climatic envelope and a prefabricated structure to allow for free, flexible programming. For the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, the architects are working with frequent collaborator Frédéric Druot, whose practice focuses on housing, urbanism, and the transformation of preexisting structures.
The house was built on the bank of the River Niger, on one of the area’s rare sand dunes, a dune particularly well-ventilated by currents of fresh air, in accordance with the axes of the river up-and downstream from Niamey, one kilometer from the village of Saadia.
It was made up of three things : straw matting, to provide shelter ; the walled enclosure ; and the “hangar” to both receive people in and look out from. Facing Niamey of an evening, the lights of the town were bright enough to get one’s bearings. Searching for and deciding upon the site took six months, the building work two days. The wind took two years to destroy it.
“With only a minimum amount of sheltered, interior space – a tent – the Tuareg nomads perform most of their daily routines outside, moving from one spot to another in search of shade, depending on the course of the sun.
“In this way,” Vassal explains, “the Tuareg ‘live’ their way through a territory along a route that starts at the tent in the morning and ends up there as well in the evening.”1 The act of architecture in Niger is also nomadic one.
Due to a lack of resources, locals habitually construct makeshift shelters out of retrofitted materials. These structures, some of them as basic as stretched t-shirts over twig frames, are spontaneously assembled and disassembled once they have outlived their use. Unaffected by a priori expectations of architectural form and longevity, these minimal and rudimentary structures are as functional as they are poetic in their temporal relationship with the territory.
During their stay in Niamey, Vassal built a house for himself on the bank of the River Niger. Although it only lasted for two years, its importance as a permanent diagram for the development of Lacaton and Vassal’s work cannot be underestimated. Located on an elevated sand dune and comprised of a round volume with a structure made of twigs, straw walls, and a rice matting roof, the house let in fresh air currents from the river and blocked out the blazing sun. The main volume consisted of two concentric circles. The innermost circle, sheltered by both a wall and a roof, furnished the house with just the right amount of interior space, while the outer room acted as neither a fully interior nor exterior space.
Adjacent to this main volume, Vassal constructed a hangar. Sheltered from the sun, this space effectively doubled the project’s surface area and functioned as an inhabitable exterior room. In combination, these three spaces created a gradual threshold from the interior and innermost circle of the house to the exterior landscape, to be occupied according to current weather conditions. The spatial organization of the straw hut embodied the African principle of living en plein air and provided Lacaton and Vassal with an alternative model to Western architecture, which, caught up with a protectionist attitude, disconnects the building from the outside world. In the straw hut, the firm boundary of the insulated wall was replaced with the permeability of the straw fence, mediating between the constructed interior conditions and the reality on the ground.”