I recently watched a film called “Rendez-Vous in Paris”, shot in 1996 by Eric Rohmer, where a painter guides a Swedish tourist around Paris. “I like the lack of colours here” the painter tells her as they walk down an alleyway. Then, pointing at a painted door frame: “That grey is too blue, it’s not a Paris grey”. When asked why he says: “I don't know.”
Later, I found myself inexperienced in thinking of cities in terms of colour. I also realised how difficult it is to relate to the two in immediate ways, not being able to assign a definite colour even to the places of my childhood. While this is not the case of most architecture, which we remember by specific colours, I realised that I shared the same uncertainty when thinking about the buildings of the 2021 Pritzker winners Lacaton&Vassal. In particular, this was the case of those images of their buildings which I came across to through the years. As I later found out, these were taken by their trusted photographer Philippe Ruault.
Writing on Lacaton&Vassal’s work in terms of photography will probably sound irrelevant, considering the hugely significant agenda that they have brought forward in the past decades. Nevertheless, the moment a practice wins the Pritzker Price is also one in which images of contemporary architecture migrate from magazines to newspapers, reaching a wider “uninterested” public (the prize is regarded as the “Nobel of architecture”).
In such context, images come to play a role more significant than what one might think.
This year however, the photographs met by ordinary newspaper readers and social media were strangely unfashionable. Ruault’s images are in fact different from most of his fellow photographers in the industry. They lack post-production, appear stale, and somehow bi-dimensional. They seem impassive to the architecture they portray, but despite all, they are effective in mysterious ways. Lastly, they all show up in the same, inexplicable light blue.
Ruault’s light blue is the kind that appears almost grey. Other times it is the way we see grey. It epitomizes an atmosphere similar to the Paris of Rohmer’s film, escaping from a realm in which colour is intentional, yet not falling into the fashion of the monochrome (also the product of intent). More importantly, in our own environment, this light-blue somehow represents a lack of control over colour itself. It is what we only perceive the sky to look like, and exemplifies the illusion of reflection and refractions, elements of space that are outside our jurisdiction as designers. Most of all, it represents an unedited version of our reality, a lack of manipulation of the images of our everyday life, something that instead keeps happening all around us at a concerning scale. From Instagram to Marvel films, from commercial rendering to Dezeen, we are bombarded by manipulated images to such a degree that we somehow remain unsatisfied with the flatness of our real environment.
The inexpressive images of Philippe Ruault are eye-opening because they offer an alternative to a culture of over-saturation, which is by now much consolidated in architectural practice. His photographs of Lacaton&Vassal’s interiors escape any attempt to bring in artificial control over colour and texture, and to wield light by over-regulating his lenses’ exposure. Their “light-blueness” also results from avoiding the tendency for this specific camera position satisfying that particular weather condition, a fashion too common to architectural photography and its virtuous quest for atmosphere. Of course, we should accept that photography is, a priori, an illusory practice. Despite that, the way we see these interiors seems to come closer to the way they look like.
We should not be surprised that such a blind approach to photography is associated with the work of Lacaton&Vassal. The French studio’s research for a responsible philosophy of material and cost management has not simply resulted in a practice able to act intelligently within the politics of social housing and public space, but has allowed them to propose an uncommon spatial aesthetic. This is one of cheap materials, exposed concrete, and corrugated surfaces, while also favouring attention to lightness, openness and generosity of living space, both in the public and private realm. Such generosity, which appeals to our deep desire for a personal appropriation of the built environment, results in fact from a great attention to scale. In similar ways, the improvisational quality of Ruault’s photography might hide his outstanding care for the details of everyday life. Just like his client’s buildings, these are images not promising more than what they show.
In some respect, it is the realm of images which distinguishes Lacaton&Vassal’s work from those practices who were mostly inspired by their architecture. From the masters of “austerity chic” to the more engaged “new realists” operating in France, many of these architects have employed the means of photography and rendering to somehow compensate on the more oppressive aspects of their energy-efficient artefacts (often extracting the most exquisite reflection from their building’s corrugated galvanized steel). While such a strategy might help to legitimize their intentions to future clients, it goes against the real value of images as frames of public reference.
The honesty of Lacaton&Vassal’s photography re-establishes a personal and intimate way of treating expectation. For this reason, when I find myself thinking of a future manner of dwelling which is truly carbon neutral, my mind immediately lingers on their interiors. They trigger in me a sense of both improvement and sacrifice. This sacrificial quality ought to be a crucial element behind the construction of those images of sustainability that architecture aims to disseminate within an uninterested public. In truth, a truly uncontaminated architecture is one that supports a truly non-contaminating life, one that we eventually have to adapt to.