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.

Read extracts from their lecture or watch in full below.

Photos: Lacaton and Vassal / Philippe Ruault


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.

Jean-Philippe Vassal and Anne Lacaton giving their Soane Medal Lecture in the Library-Dining Room.

Image: Jean-Philippe Vassal and Anne Lacaton give their Soane Medal Lecture. Photo by Luca Marino.


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.

The rooftop of the School of Architecture in Nantes at night, set up for an outdoor cinema evening.

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.

A leafy square, surrounded by low-rise housing in suburban Bordeaux.

Place Léon Aucoc, Bordeaux, France

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.

In the end, we proposed doing nothing.

A view of the ground floor hall of the Palais de Tokyo, full of visitors engaging with an exhibition.

Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France

Site for contemporary creation

Since reopening in 2001, what makes the Palais de Tokyo special, in addition of course to its artistic programmes, is the broad freedom it offers to visitors and to the works of art they flock to see. This freedom creates a general feeling of a place designed for sharing and debating ideas, with a free and transparent ambiance of wellbeing and a place its visitors can make their own.

Ten years after its first refurbishment, a second phase of development allowed the entire space of its four levels to open to the public, whilst remaining faithful to its role as a site created to promote access to and awareness of contemporary art. This internal expansion enabled the institution to fully utilise the impressive height, depth and adaptability of its vast spaces.

The internal skeletal structure of the Palais de Tokyo, with a spiral staircase descending through the layers of the building.

The Palais de Tokyo is a place with many and varied functions – a lively place of leisure, where the works on display challenge but can be challenged in return.

An open and welcoming venue, valued by the general public and local residents, it hosts exhibitions, events, film screenings, music and fashion shows and is home to a bookshop and café-restaurant.

The project allowed us the opportunity to maximise available space.

The project took advantage of the extraordinary qualities of the existing architecture, transforming it slightly and judiciously to enable the diversity of the desired uses as well as hosting events and exhibitions and to allow permanent flexibility and multiple configurations. Spaces can now easily be partitioned temporarily into smaller subdivisions, or reopened and reconfigured into an immense space.

The building is used in all its verticality. Being free to go up and down, to move from one space to another, from one activity to another, ensures that the public has something to see on all levels. They take their time, enjoying the experience.

The glass ceiling and upper gallery space of Dunkerque's FRAC Grand Large.

FRAC Grand Large, Dunkerque, France

France’s Regional Art Collections (FRACfracs) host public collections of contemporary art collected by the French Regions. These collections are preserved, catalogued, and shown to the public through on-site exhibitions or loans to galleries and museums.

Founded in 1983, the FRAC of the North Region (Hauts-de-France) is located on the site of the port of Dunkirk in a former boat hall called AP 2. It is the only surviving building of the vast shipyard complex, which was dismantled a few years after its closure in 1988.

The AP 2 hall is a unique and emblematic site. Its interior volume, which was completely empty, is an immense 35 metres high; it is well-lit and has incredible potential for use.

Keeping the hall and its immense volume in its entirety without filling it up, became the guiding force of the project.

As such, a duplicate of the hall was created to the same size, alongside the sea, which now houses the FRAC programme.

The new building is delicately juxtaposed with the existing one without competing with or overshadowing it. The duplication is a sympathetic response to the original AP 2 hall’s identity.

The cavernous interior hall of the retrofitted FRAC Grand Large, Dunkerque.

Under a light and bioclimatic envelope, an efficient, prefabricated interior structure holds free, flexible and evolving platforms, with few constraints, adjusted to the programme’s needs. The transparency of the exterior façade reveals the opaque volume of the storerooms and exhibition rooms.

The Halle AP 2 becomes a flexible additional space, for the FRAC to host exceptional temporary exhibitions, create or display large-scale works, and to stage a wide variety of public events, from concerts, fairs and shows to circuses and sports. The quality of AP 2’s existing architecture meant that only minimal, targeted and limited interventions were required. The programme of improvements to the FRAC and the set-up of conditions and equipment for public use of the Halle AP 2 was realised within budget.

You can purchase the full lecture in print via our shop, or watch the full talk and Q&A on our YouTube channel.