Hochschulseminar – Wer hat Angst vor dem Zufall?
Interview Jean Philippe Vassal – Who's afraid of the informal?
Asma Asli, Hanan Ben-Chaabane, Patrick Puchalski, Fariha Kurt, Jördis Petersen, Alice Taute, Charlotte Portié, Christina Schädlich, Stefanie Deumeland, Torly Osterholz, Berlin im Januar 2018


Jean Philippe Vassal was born on 22. february 1954 in Casablanca (Marocco).
While studying at the School of Architecture in Bordeaux he met Anne Lacaton.They graduated in 1980.
In 1985 Anne Lacaton graduated in Urban Planning from the University of Bordeaux. At the same time from 1980 to 1985, Jean Philippe Vassal worked as a city planner in Niger (West Africa).
In 1989 they founded their joint office Lacaton & Vassal in Paris. Their architecture is focused on clarity, simplicity, and economics.

In advance, we would like to thank Jean Philippe Vassal for this interview.
We really enjoyed discussing the following questions with you.


Is coincidence positive or negative in context of planning?


Coincidence is positive.

Everything that connects, that has an influence, everything that exists in a way, is interesting to take it in account. Everything that motivates you to have those standards, to have that standard of thinking is very interesting. The most things you take are from the reality, from the banalities.

I mean, the planning should take this in consideration, the planning should propose freedom, of this as it is: you prepare the ground for the flowers. You don't know the colors, you don't know if it will be yellow, or blue, or red. You prepare the ground, the better you prepare the ground, and the more flowers will grow.

It is the exigency of every planning to afford freedom.



Is coincidence a major influence in your planning?


Yes, we are always curious.

That's what I always say to my students: It's tough with curiosity. Curious means to see things that you've never seen, or to understand things that you would never understand. This is the base of the work as an architect. This curiosity. There are so many things existing in the world, in different places, different countries. Different situations, that needs to be observed, very carefully, very precisely. And we must need to learn from that. And this is the base of the further development of research.


To what extent is randomness important?


We can't think about places and spaces in an abstract way. I like this moment. This moment when you imagine you create a space, totally free in the air - in the sky, like a formation of clouds. Clouds are fragments of molecules of water that produces a form - that is a cloud. That's how I like the idea to create the project with this lightness, with this flexibility, with this maximum of kind of generosity. What I like even more is when this cloud touches the ground, because all the time we need to adapt to some context, to some situation and then the cloud has to change his form, to adapt. And it will take count of the richness of the ground. And then, the cloud becomes even better, bigger, and more beautiful. And this is interesting. The idea that you can organize this abstractivity in the air and you adapt it with all the richness of what exists on the ground. In that, each time, when it touches the ground, we have to think about: How it is on the ground? Is there something missing? Is there something good? How we can keep the qualities? How can we improve the qualities? How can we give solutions to the problems? And we are good with this. But by the observation, we see that, on the ground, there are already plenty of qualities. And most of them are invisible. We cannot see them, and we forget them and make our planning and don't make account of them, and they exist. And sometimes a project contains this, these existing qualities, that we are not able to see.



What characteristics are promoted?


It's exactly the accidents. The fact that you are working on generous space, space of qualities, but abstraction is in a way not so interesting and it is interesting for some moments to transform some details of reality, causing some accidents.

I can only talk about a small project, one of the first projects I did: it was close to the sea, in a forest of palm trees, and the client wanted to keep everything as natural as possible: looking out to the ocean, with the sunshine and all the palms. Buildings were created on the neighboring parcels, these now obscure the sun. They felled palms to build a house. And in this situation, we said, "We want to keep the qualities of the place." So the sun is still here with us in June and we wanted to keep all the trees in. The trees and the house merge and complement each other.



Is there a kind of charm/aesthetics in free composition, or coincidence?


It's just the resulting situation. I believe in beauty or aesthetics. But we do not have to work on aesthetics, we just have to work precisely on some issues, on the generosity we can give to some situations, on the careful consideration of the context and how we handle it. And this work creates this natural beauty. "It is beautiful, it is beautiful" no it works only with this direction, with this attention, this tender attention, this generosity, the natural beauty shall be produced. So it's just the result of a process.


What's the difference between composition, coincidence, and association, randomness in the designing process?


These are two things that are really interesting. It is great! That you can produce things in different ways, that was with generosity, with this kind of idea of a maximum. But even if something happened at the end, it can be pretty boring. And what's interesting in a moment is the superimposition of a layer that's real layer, which will change those costumes, and that will upset that costume, which will bring some modifications. And that's interesting.


Have you got one example of this question?


Yes, in fact you can say that you ...

If you were to make a very efficient and very optimal project, you would take some cubes and some parallelepipeds, and yet everything would be very clear. Interestingly, the components are often not exactly rectangles or squares, they have strange shapes. And right now, the confrontation between these two systems is interesting. And what's interesting is the failure of an efficient system. If it is only one percent, it is enough to completely modify the system. So it is with a small impact, a small change, that something can look very different, as if it were completely standard.



What parts of the planning-process are settled and shouldn’t be settled in use?


Architecture is about creating a situation of space that is easy to use and the ultimate goal is to create freedom.

This means that the residents will bring something into the room. And we explore that. We never produce an apartment or a project for us architects, but for the user.

We are creating the possibility for the inhabitants to be creative. Of course they are not able to create their own structure, but we can help them to do it. We are helping them to find out what they want to produce. For me it's not so interesting to say the wall should be blue or gray because I think that the user / resident can decide much better.

That's what we saw at the School of Architecture in Nantes, that professors and students can do a lot. In the former school there were three associations of students. In the new school we have the same number of students but there are seventeen student associations.

This means that the space itself gives directions for associations to happen, to be created. And that's important. That's the idea of space we have; Rooms in which the user has the freedom of use. Architecture is only complete when this is done. When the building is empty, the architecture is not finished.


What's the scope? What could you insist on? What scope do you see for yourself in your planning work?


It's almost a formal question. You have to adapt to a situation. For example, if I make a café in Vienna I would not stop at the same point as if I would make a school of architecture in Nantes.

It depends on the program. For me, it's important to know exactly where to stop

Because sometimes, if you take a step more than it's too much and you destroyed almost everything what you did before. While working on a project you have to know what you are doing and when it is enough.

You have to leave space for the wishes of the users, if you do too much you are limiting their freedom. Sometimes it is the same with students: In a moment, you can lead the students and help them, but if you give them the solution, it's more interesting. It is very important to have liberties. Well, I think we should go back to a very simple architecture, not too complex, not so sophisticated.

I think we should come back to very simple things. Architecture is very simple.

It is about making floors and giving the air and the light and the site a certain quality. So we should go back to very simple things. It contains everything that is necessary for comfort, pleasure, the generosity of others - and gives the user the opportunity to be creative.

All people are creative. Some people have a talent for flowers, some for mechanics and some for books. It is important to give each person creative space.



What kind of structures in a city makes it easy/possible to start/develop an independent business and are there city structures that makes it hard or impossible to start a business?


I would say it's open structures. This idea of open structures is very important.

Actually I think the society is more and more closed, protected. We make walls everywhere.

And even the design is about making walls. (...)

I think the architecture grows a bit in this direction. We should come back to open structures. Places that gives a maximum of possibilities. It means,

When you want to be intimate, you can push sliding doors or sliding elements and you are

hidden. You have sliding doors from the living room into a winter-garden and to a balcony. And you can open or close each one of them. (...) Everything should be mobile, in function of the wishes of the inhabitants. The space should be defined like that. To give the possibility. If you want to close it you can close, but it is not a barrier that is definitive. And I think actually architecture is a bit like that. In the facade, windows are smaller and smaller, because we say we need to make insulation. (…)

If you want to open everything, or if you want to close everything, we need

to generate open structures and generous structures. (...)

For urban structure in a city it is the same, except the scale is different. In a way it's the same thing for a bedroom, a flat or for a city.  The system is the same.

You can apply that for a bedroom in a flat, or for a flat in a collective housing system, or a collective building inside a street, or a street inside a city.

It is always the same system. (...)

Public space should be public, it should be usable, okay we can control them, sometimes we have some laws for security, for things like that, but I think we should start with the idea that all people are positive instead of thinking people are negative. We should start with this idea and leave the possibilities open. Start with this idea of generosity. The city with the ground floors open, or at least leave the possibilities to open the ground floors towards the streets.

Also the role of inhabiting is very important, and the role of the architects concerning that.  It is quite recent the fact that architects are working for all inhabitants. Before they were working for the church, or for banks, or the headquarters of societies, or queens and kings etc., and then for very rich people. Today we have to work for everyone and try to find good conditions of living for everyone living in the city. This idea of inhabiting is very important.

The quality of the city starts from that. That means that we have an existing situations, sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad and we have to repair , reprove or ad something.

I don't like demolition, it's a big loss of energy, I think we should always ad to what exists.

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