Grand Parc

Radical Retrofit
A retrofit and extension of 530 social housing units, based on the refusal to demolish and a commitment to work with the existing—which questions the logic of obsolescence and the need for the new by redefining luxury and abundance


When Glasgow City Council (UK) demolished the Red Road Flats, a 1960s complex of buildings that once housed over four thousand people, the celebratory mood amongst officials was so great that plans were made to incorporate the razing of three of the towers into the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Such is the power of our collective obsession with newness, and particularly with destruction and obsolescence as routes to progress and renewal. 

The architectural profession is so often the handmaiden of this desire for the new, and with it the addiction to growth which in turn drives climate breakdown. In the common career trajectory of an award-winning architect, identity is established through one or two key projects: new buildings of a certain type (such as a museum, library, or religious building) that signal their arrival, creative potential, and design ambition. They are branded with the architect’s signature style and credited to their authorship. Such a narrow set of aspirations for architecture and spatial production is bound to the profession’s complicity in the perpetuation of climate breakdown. Critical of this founding tenet of the new, the Architects Journal in the UK had to set up an entirely new set of awards to recognise architects working with existing buildings because barely any projects involving a significant portion of retrofit are included in Building of the Year and other award shortlists.1See also Christina Monteiro, ‘Why does the Stirling Prize shortlist feel like a huge step backwards?’, Architects Journal, 23 September 2021 <> [accessed 8 February 2023].


French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal have built their career on questioning the need for the new. Perhaps one of their most polemic early projects—for Place Léon Aucoc in Bordeaux—consists of almost nothing, besides a refutation of the city’s plan to redevelop the square with the statement: “Embellishment has no place here. Quality, charm, life exist. The square is already beautiful.”2Place Léon Aucoc, Bordeaux’, lacaton & vassal <> [accessed 8 February 2023]. That this anti-architectural, “do little” strategy has eventually taken them to the highest accolades in architecture, including the Pritzker Prize in 2021, is not entirely contradictory. Lacaton & Vassal’s methods both reject one model of architecture and provide an enticing blueprint for another. 

“We want to develop our architecture like that; it’s the opposite of tabula rasa. In French, we call it ‘situation capable’—finding the possibilities offered by the situation.”3Andrew Ayers, ‘Retrospective Lacaton & Vassal’, The Architectural Review, 2019, pp. 77-86 < Architectural Review_compressed.pdf> [accessed 8 February 2023].

Emblematic of this approach is the project for Grand Parc—a large estate of social housing in Bordeaux originally built in the 1960s and in need of significant improvements to the building’s fabric. Lacaton & Vassal’s strategy to renovate a group of three buildings on the estate, comprising a total of 530 units, was to add an exoskeleton of winter garden-balconies, removing the old facade and simultaneously improving the performance of the building envelope and expanding the internal area of the individual flats. The masterstroke, perhaps, was ensuring that existing residents not only keep their homes, but could remain in them almost throughout construction. It is a design based upon a 2004 manifesto (with Frédéric Druot) which proposed: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform and reuse.”4Catherine Slessor, ‘Grand Parc, Bordeaux review – a rush of light, air and views’, The Guardian, 12 May 2019 <> [accessed 8 February 2023]. That commitment had already informed earlier projects in Paris and Saint-Nazaire.5‘Transformation de la Tour Bois le Prêtre – Paris 17’, lacaton & vassal <> [accessed 8 February 2023]; ‘Transformation d’un immeuble de logements, Saint-Nazaire, La Chesnaie’, lacaton & vassal <> [accessed 8 February 2023].

The argument is ecological, but also economic: “conserving the existing building without making important interventions on the structure, the stairs or the floors […] makes it possible to focus the energy on generous extensions that are, according to us, the key to enhance in a lasting way the dwellings quality and dimension”.6‘Transformation de 530 logements, bâtiments G, H, I, quartier du Grand Parc’, lacaton & vassal <> [accessed 8 February 2023]. The retrofit cost roughly half of what a new-build scheme would have cost7‘Designing the Brief: Jean-Philippe Vassal in conversation with Philipp Oswalt”, Arch+ <> [accessed 8 February 2023]., whilst eliminating the embodied carbon of an entirely new structure and improving the operational energy efficiency of the building as a whole. The winter gardens make interesting connections between inside and outside, with minimal refurbishment inside, but the space is expanded by using simple and modest materials—allowing tight budgets to stretch to the provision of maximum additional space. The project therefore represents a redescription of luxury and abundance from the material to the spatial, redefining values in favour of the luxury of space and celebrating the modest. By delivering an architectural solution to keeping the original building, Lacaton & Vassal supported their client by questioning the rhetoric of obsolescence that often precedes and prejudices projects of this type—with dire consequences not only for the climate, but also for existing residents who are seen as equally disposable. 


External links

Retrofit ReimaginedCivic Squares ongoing series that explores the interconnected economic, social, political, and other associated dimensions of retrofit implementation across scales