As if I needed better evidence that change was afoot at WORKac, the architecture firm led by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, a stack of Sheetrock and a semi-demolished brick wall greet me as I enter their office, mid-renovation, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side one morning in October. Since 2014, when Andraos became dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), a hyperactive institution with global satellites, the firm has had to adjust to new pressures. “We had a tough time the first year,” admits Wood, over an intermittent chorus of drills, saws, and Shop-Vacs.

But now that Andraos has settled into her job uptown, the office has embarked upon what he describes as “a really experimental period.” A book documenting nearly 15 years of practice is due out this fall. And major projects, such as a new public library in Queens, are nearing completion. Having ascended to the highest ranks of academia and demonstrated that their office is capable of winning significant commissions while they are still in their 40s, Andraos and Wood find themselves in an enviable predicament.

With the experience and reputation they’ve amassed, they must determine how to proceed.

“When we started the practice, we didn’t know what we wanted to do, and we were really about working,” says Wood. “But I think we realized very quickly in teaching that it’s a way to escape the day-to-day pressure of everyone demanding that you make decisions. Teaching is really just reacting to other people’s decisions. You set things in motion and you kind of watch them go.”

Andraos, more measured than Wood, strikes a philosophical tone: “I aspire to foster a school where everyone is in a kind of passionate state. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Pragmatists both, they want to prove to students that it is possible to think about the same things in the office as in school (Wood teaches at the University of Pennsylvania). This means they are obligated to hold up the other end of the bargain in their role as risk-tolerant professionals.

“We have no problem throwing people onto a project that doesn’t exist,” offers Wood.

“Actually that is a problem,” says Andraos, drawing him back from the ledge of extravagance.

Wood concedes, “That is a bit of a financial problem.”

Now and again, they indulge themselves. (What better use of an Ivy League administrator’s salary than speculation?)

And on such occasions, the DIY spirit and environmental preoccupations of the 1960s and ’70s counterculture act as their guide. For the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015, WORKac collaborated with Ant Farm members Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier to reanimate three prescient projects from the outsider group’s archive, and collaged them into a floating habitat called A more recent project of this sort, an off-the-grid house in the Arizona desert, re-envisions the Earthship passive energy building type beloved by Cold War survivalists as a sleek, solar-paneled glass wedge (part greenhouse, part living area) perched atop an adobe brick thermal mass.

Less far-fetched fantasy than over-the-top reality, the house is characteristic of their work in general, which luxuriates in intensive programming and odd proximities. For proof, consider the facade they were commissioned to design for one section of a parking structure now under construction in Miami’s Design District. “We said, OK, we’re going to take the four feet that are given for the architect, for the envelope, and really create this kind of vertical public promenade of all our favorite topics— art, kids, animals, water collection,” says Andraos. Wood adds, “So it has a playground, a little lending library, a listening lounge, a graffiti art gallery, a garden with a palm tree, a DJ booth.”

In the office’s current moment of experimentation, this programmatic feverishness has taken on a slightly different form, emphasizing the articulation of boundaries. A proposal for the new Beirut Museum of Art, awarded second place in a recent competition, carves speech-bubble-like cavities of various sizes out of a freestanding concrete mass, reconceiving the balcony, a fixture of the Mediterranean city, as a receptacle for artworks. While we talk, Wood takes a small model of the building by his hand and switches on a battery-operated light. The dimpled cube glows, as does the architect’s face.

This childlike thrill from miniatures is a holdover from his 20s. Wood, who was raised in rural Rhode Island and studied film theory in college, “got really into model making” as an architecture student at GSAPP during the pre-paperless studio period of the early 1990s. After graduation, he pursued this interest professionally, first in New York and then at OMA in Rotterdam. His career took off from there. “One day, Rem called me out of the model shop and said, ‘You know, we have a lot of projects in the U.S. now, so you should be in charge of them.’”

“I thought he was Dutch,” recalls the Lebanese-born Andraos of her first encounter with Wood, in 1998. “So I said, ‘Do you want to go for an American burger?’” By then her own identity was susceptible to misinterpretation, as she’d spent  much of her childhood living in Saudi Arabia—where her father, an architect and painter, pursued a prefabricated-housing venture—then in Paris and Montreal. Andraos completed an undergraduate thesis on downtown Beirut at McGill University and made Middle Eastern cities the focus of her first major initiative as dean; but she approaches the subject of her native region, and most other things, from multiple vantage points. (At GSAPP, she insists on making connections across different programs, and with the outside world, around shared environmental and social concerns.) As a student of Koolhaas’s at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design—where his research at the time spanned Roman cities to Lagos, Nigeria—and, later, as his employee at OMA, Andraos was taught to take seriously every condition possible. “Certainly we still carry that approach,” she says.

Indeed, despite the considerable time both spent working for Koolhaas, when Andraos and Wood set out on their own, in 2003, they took with them less a formal grammar of off-kilter cantilevers than an expansive, hierarchy-busting perspective. For the first five years, during which WORKac completed mostly interior projects locally in New York, the firm’s philosophy  was “Say yes to everything.” Villa Pup—an immersive urban doghouse incorporating a treadmill, an odor machine, and video screens—was its “mascot project.”

A turning point came in 2008, after winning MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program. The annual pavilion pageant epitomized for them an exhausted architectural discourse focused on fabrication, form-making, and material exploration. In retrospect, WORKac’s canopy-as-functioning-urban-farm also signaled a shift in the competition criteria, no doubt hastened by the financial crisis (future winners, like Andrés Jaque’s water-purifying COSMO or HWKN’s air-filtering Wendy, were judged as much for what they did as how they looked).

Attracted by the excitement in other fields—urbanism, landscape, ecology, infrastructure—WORKac turned its focus away from the building proper. With the exception of a culinary classroom for Edible Schoolyard NYC at P.S. 216 in Brooklyn, completed in 2014, its most important projects from this period were research-based. 49 Cities, a self-initiated study shown at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2009 and published as a book, reframed the history of visionary urban schemes like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Royal Saltworks complex and Superstudio’s Continuous Monument in ecological terms. Nature-City, a speculative suburban redevelopment prepared for MoMA’s 2012 Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream exhibition, proposed landform-esque structures that combined living and working spaces and infrastructural features such as composting hills, geothermal pumps, and water-pressure waterfalls.

In the past year, however, a renewed interest in the problem of the building has emerged. “It’s kind of like we went from inside to very large-scale outside, and now we’re bringing the outside and the inside back together—which is architecture,” says Andraos. Over the course of our conversation, the issue we keep returning to is that of scale. Andraos and Wood express a desire to be closer to the work, whether by exercising greater control over details or, as in the case of their long-standing relationship with Edible Schoolyard NYC (a second facility was just completed in Harlem), contributing to a project’s broader ambitions. “True partners” is how Kate Brashares, executive director of the food-education nonprofit, described Andraos and Wood to me recently. For her, their work revealed how the architecture of the culinary classrooms could not only support but become an integral part of the organization’s mission—space as environmental-sensitivity training.

Still, Andraos and Wood can’t help but wonder if they are shooting themselves in the foot by preferring more amenable scales. Does an architecture firm accrue experience only to pass up larger projects? For practices like WORKac—concerned with building but invested in experimentation, research, and teaching—the future is hardly predestined. Reliable guides for how to engage the world are in short supply today. The gospel of bigness handed down to their generation in Koolhaas’s S, M, L, XL—only by dramatically increasing scale could architecture fully engage its own time—gives Andraos pause. “I think it’s a question. I think we’re allowed to say the price is too high.” Wood, concerned about diminished impact, offers a counterpoint. “I want to temper the idea of pulling back on scale. It’s really pulling back on excess, maybe,” he explains. “There are some very big ideas that can help the world be more sustainable.”

As Andraos sees it, maintaining control over one’s practice as far as deciding the scale at which to operate is the greatest challenge architects face today. The question pertains to issues like payroll, certainly. But to the extent that there is a choice, it is also a political and ethical consideration. “It’s a privilege to be able to decide how you want to live it,” Andraos says of life, which, for her and her partner, is never far removed from work. “That’s what practice is.”

Lacaton & Vassal


Though many lessons remain from architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal’s first project—a modest straw-mat house constructed on a sand dune along the Niger River in 1984—the structure itself does not. As they wrote, “Searching for and deciding upon the site took six months, the building work two days. The wind took two years to destroy it.”

Now in charge of a Paris-based firm notable for several significant public buildings and extensions of tall urban housing blocks, Lacaton and Vassal, 60 and 61, respectively, continue to learn from that fragile house in Niger. Only instead of treating uncertainty and environmental contingencies as liabilities, the architects have put observation, open-endedness, and “freedom of use”—as they called it during a Harvard Graduate School of Design lecture last March—at the center of their practice.

In 2004 Lacaton and Vassal, with architect Frédéric Druot, authored PLUS, a study-cum-manifesto that challenged an initiative by the French government to raze a significant part of its long-vilified postwar social housing stock and build new—and, no doubt, smaller—dwellings at great expense. Their alternative approach is encapsulated by an exclamation: “Never demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse!” And over the past five years, Druot, Lacaton, and Vassal have had the chance to test their conjectures in reality, transforming Modernist housing in Paris, Saint-Nazaire, and Bordeaux. At each site, cramped and dim apartments have been opened up to light, air, and previously unimagined uses through interventions that exploit the buildings’ height and the potential of their interior spaces: new elevators, improved plumbing, and inhabitable glass facades that capitalize on views. The architects understood that to stand a chance against the winds of fickle consumerism and ideological whitewashing, this cultural heritage had to be true to its modernity; it had to evolve.

Lacaton and Vassal met as students during the late 1970s, and though their career roughly tracks the rise of Postmodernism in architecture, the pair has rejected that movement’s essential claim: Modernism’s termination. While they make work that is unreservedly critical, they’ve mostly shunned the rituals of their profession’s heady set. Through buildings more so than books, they have advanced a set of ideas, a theory of architecture not divorced from use and inhabitation, from life. They don’t rattle off the names of de rigueur philosophers or prattle on about “the future of architecture.” They haven’t done a TED Talk. And yet their work is more urgent than that of most of their peers, since they are advocating for buildings that would otherwise be demolished.

The architects have called the French capital home since 1999, the year they were commissioned to install a temporary contemporary arts center within a monumental remnant of the 1937 World’s Fair (due in part to their successful “soft” renovation, the Palais de Tokyo is now a permanent institution). Prior to that, for more than a decade they maintained their office in Bordeaux, designing small homes, a public square, and several unsuccessful competition entries. They took walks, too, and on one frequent route developed a curiosity about the horticultural vernacular. “We were really interested in the kind of space that these greenhouses made, a kind of well-being when you are inside,” Lacaton recalled one afternoon last year inside their sixth-floor office, a former industrial space in the 17th arrondissement. “Because the structure is light, you don’t feel the weight of the architecture—you feel free.”

The day before I met up with Lacaton, I visited the new architecture school in Nantes that the firm completed in 2014. Using economical construction techniques and the winter-garden approach they’ve honed over two decades, the architects were able to create nearly twice as much space as the client demanded. Large, double-height spaces remain unprogrammed, enclosed by polycarbonate panels that are free to be moved by students and faculty. When I remarked at how extraordinary the views were, Lacaton fended off my intimation of a compliment: “We didn’t invent the view; the building just had to look at it.”

Beginning in 1993, with a residence they designed for a local Bordeaux family on a tight budget, Lacaton and Vassal started to incorporate adaptable and inexpensive greenhouse construction techniques in many of their projects. The front half of the steel-frame structure contains two levels of conditioned living space (bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, and common areas), and the back half a double-height winter garden enclosed by corrugated polycarbonate and outfitted with operable ventilation panels. Plywood bifolds separate Maison Latapie’s two environments, allowing the compact house to transition with the weather and the whims of its occupants. What Niger made the architects sensitive to—climate, site, the life cycles of buildings—they were able to, with the discovery of greenhouses, turn into a staggering kind of interior space, neither inside nor outside, at least as we typically understand those terms.

Today, a 15-minute drive from Maison Latapie, it’s possible to see how indispensable winter gardens have become to Lacaton and Vassal for the past 23 years. Here, within a 150-acre postwar housing complex of some 4,000 apartments known as Grand Parc, their firm is transforming three 1960s housing blocks, in collaboration with Druot and architect Christophe Hutin, with strategies first laid out in PLUS. Along the south facades of the two 16-story buildings and the east and west facades of the 11-story building, freestanding, precast-concrete structures have been erected, extending the floors of 530 apartments by 12.5 feet. One unit at a time, the weathered concrete walls encasing puny punched windows are being sawed away. Within the new floor-to-ceiling openings, sliding glass doors are fitted, permitting access to private winter gardens and a shallow balcony separated by reflective thermal curtains and sliding polycarbonate panels. Elsewhere in the buildings, new elevators have been installed and mechanical systems and bathrooms have been updated. Before work concludes early this spring, ground-level entranceways will be improved.

In financial terms, the renovations cost roughly half as much as building new apartments (about €65,000 per unit). But there are other kinds of benefits to this evolutionary model. Residents are not displaced, and their apartments receive more expansive views— some of the best in Bordeaux (a five-floor height restriction is imposed on new construction). And the winter gardens, which improve the buildings’ thermal performance, redefine the existing living spaces by creating connections between rooms and helping regulate their temperature. They add a question mark, too: The inhabitants of each apartment must ask, “What exactly should I use this space for?” Photographs by Philippe Ruault, who has collaborated with Lacaton and Vassal since shooting Maison Latapie, reveal the plurality of responses. Some use the spaces for eating, and others have filled them with lounge chairs and couches. Almost always there are plants, real and fake. Still, it’s hard to say what exactly these spaces are.

Though significantly larger in scale, Grand Parc builds off Lacaton and Vassal’s 2011 transformation of Tour Bois le Prêtre, a 17-story apartment tower in Paris that earned the architects their first attention in the United States (a New York Times article and a spot in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 exhibition Small Scale, Big Change). But Lacaton is especially optimistic about the Bordeaux project. “It really shows the level of interest in transformation as a system,” and not, as too many considered Bois le Prêtre, “just a clever method of renovation.” Lacaton and Vassal’s work is susceptible to misunderstanding. Its departure from conventional expectations of use and comfort—winter gardens, for instance—can seem whimsical, naive. And the deployment of greenhouse materials and unfussy detailing can seem like a willful aesthetic of the cheap.

The mere mention of that last word can turn Lacaton, otherwise relaxed and measured, defensive. (She prefers “inexpensive.”) But that reaction might not be so unreasonable, considering that the redefinition of value and reappropriation of language are critical to Lacaton and Vassal’s practice in general and their approach to housing in particular. “It’s unclear, this question of bringing more luxury into living spaces when you are building public-subsidized housing,” she says, invoking a word most think is exclusive to the wealthy. Defying decision makers—frequently private real estate developers—who consider the low and middle classes to have “enough,” the architects always insist on doing more.

If the pressures of neoliberal austerity can be said to be both economic and psychic, it is prescient that Lacaton and Vassal combine systems thinking and sensitivity, pragmatism and pleasure. Whereas an environmentalist might see the housing transformations as ecologically mindful, a socially engaged activist might view them as more just, or a penny-pinching bureaucrat might call them cost-effective, Lacaton and Vassal are foremost concerned that they make better architecture. Or, more accurately, change the quality of life—a purposefully open-ended phrase that Lacaton explains as a “big amount of little questions.” Such as: How much should a glass door reveal? Can you open that door and put a chair outside? Can you have lunch on your balcony? More and more, Lacaton and Vassal liken what they do to a filmmaker’s work: building a composite out of fragments, creating a frame around actors. “For us,” Lacaton says, “the strengths should not come from the form or the complexity of the architecture, but much more from the capacity the space can produce for life, for relationships.”

Lacaton & Vassal


Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal may be architects, but their real métier is doubt. Unstinting skeptics, low-key mavericks, the Paris-based duo—born in 1955 in Saint-Pardoux, France, and in 1954 in Casablanca, Morocco, respectively—have relentlessly questioned the orthodoxies of architecture, disrupting force-fed assumptions about the economies and practices that drive the design, construction, and inhabitation of space. Lacaton and Vassal often make insides that are like outsides, airy structures that host everything from homes and schools to museums and offices in open-ended environs that shirk strict climatological and behavioral control—environments that leave room to linger and live in. At other times, defying a global culture that seems to value iconic architecture at any cost, they deem building itself to be altogether unnecessary.

Take, for example, Lacaton and Vassal’s project for Place Léon Aucoc, a small triangular square in Bordeaux, France. In 1996, their eponymous studio was commissioned, at the behest of a new mayor’s citywide beautification effort, to redesign the tree-shaded expanse of gravel. But after observing the pétanque terrain and talking with the square’s bench sitters and passersby, Lacaton and Vassal concluded that an overhaul was gratuitous. Instead, they prescribed a few basic maintenance tasks: Replace the gravel, clean more frequently, take care of the lime trees. “Embellishment has no place here,” their project statement went. “Quality, charm, life [already] exist.”City officials, flummoxed, at first rejected the scheme. The proposal confounded not only their expectation of a physical intervention in the park (presumably some of the faddish pavings and overelaborate street furniture endemic to urban touch-ups) but also their underlying assumption that improving public space was primarily a matter of aesthetics. Ultimately realized—if practically invisible—the project is now an archetype in Lacaton and Vassal’s oeuvre. The decision to add nothing, they contend, was not a denial of architecture; it was simply a different way of approaching their role. “The work of an architect is not only to build,” Lacaton explained in an interview in 2003. “The first [thing] to do is to think, and only after that are you able to say whether you should build or not.”

Sometimes architecture is already there. That was the case with the west wing of Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, a hulking Neoclassical exhibition hall that had been occupied and abandoned by a string of cultural institutions by the time the design competition for a new contemporary art center was held in 1999. Lacaton and Vassal’s winning proposal was based on the approach of putting as much of the building “back in service” as possible. Built for the 1937 World’s Fair, the landmark’s stately stone exterior masked a reinforced-concrete interior so expansive, open, and unexpectedly modern that it seemed to Lacaton and Vassal to exceed the category of building and to approach the condition of an urban square or market. This observation became central to their design. Referencing the Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech, host to a daily flux of transitory stalls, storytellers, and hawkers, Lacaton and Vassal proposed a minimally invasive approach whereby the architecture accommodates—without determining—a vast range of provisional activities, the many forms of encounter imagined by the venue’s then directors, Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans. With most of the project’s minuscule budget going toward essential technical upgrades and structural stabilization, the third of the building reserved for use by the kunsthalle remained, on opening in 2002, largely as Lacaton and Vassal found it—threadbare ceilings, crumbling columns, marble staircases, and all. To those architects anxious to distinguish the products of their discipline from mere building—often through exotic finishes and highly resolved geometries—the barely there renovation offered a perplexing challenge.

What’s more, by shunning clean walls as well as wholesale transformation, Lacaton and Vassal at once flouted the two categories around which debates on contemporary art museums tend to turn: the white cube and heavy-handed “signature architecture.” Of course, the repurposing of historically significant or typologically defunct buildings for the display of art is not uncommon. Yet unlike, for instance, the Musée d’Orsay across the Seine, which shows Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artworks in a lustrous fin-de-siècle railway station, or Dia:Beacon in upstate New York, where Minimalist and post-Minimalist artworks are installed in an impeccably gridded box-printing factory, the Palais de Tokyo doesn’t offer a carefully orchestrated embrace between art and architecture based on close historical or formal correspondence. Instead, Lacaton and Vassal’s approach produces a kind of baggy fit. By freeing up and leaving unfinished as much room as possible, the architects deferred the partitioning and occupation of space to the artists, the curators, the visitors—to the inhabitants, as it were. This strategy was made more extreme with the completion, in April 2012, of an expansion designed by Lacaton and Vassal that tripled the art center’s size to 240,000 square feet spread across four levels. The excess and irregularity of the space almost seem to stretch time, letting people linger in ways foreign to the turnstile-like museums of today. Perhaps the most remarkable new expanse is the basement, a bituminous exhibition space (into which one descends via a lazily spiraling steel staircase stitched through a thatch of abject columns and girders), its floor a patchwork of worn concrete and billowing asphalt like that of some illicit skate park or slipshod parking structure. Even now, when “raw” is so chic, these are strange precincts.

As skeptical as they are of the presumed role of architecture, Lacaton and Vassal do not reject building outright. Consider a more recent, and particularly fecund, bout of naysaying: In 2009, a design competition was launched to convert a roomy postwar shipbuilding workshop into the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais, an affiliate of France’s Regional Contemporary Art Fund located in the far-north port city of Dunkirk. Officially, the building was named Atelier de Préfabrication no. 2, or AP2; but locals, out of deference to taller-than-wide proportions and Chartres-esque acoustics, had long ago anointed this concrete shell the “cathedral.” Measuring 246 feet long, 82 feet wide, and 98 feet tall, this hulking boat hangar cuts a sharp, iconic profile against a background that’s all North Sea and open sky, its surroundings having been flattened following the collapse of the shipbuilding industry. A waterfront-redevelopment plan identified the landmark as a good home for a cultural anchor, and the FRAC, occupying a cramped former hospital with little room to show its collection of nearly fifteen hundred works, needed bigger quarters.

On a visit to the site, Lacaton and Vassal immediately sensed dissonance in the competition mandate: The preservationist instinct that had spared the shell was, by installing a museum inside, about to destroy the space. Wasn’t the vast, vacant interior the hangar’s most exceptional quality? Though touching on a general paradox of architectural preservation, which persists in telling history through facades but shows little concern for the embodied affects of buildings, Lacaton and Vassal are not pious conservationists. Their attitude toward existing structures, like their approach to design in general, privileges mutability over posterity. The AP2’s interior needed to be saved because it still had potential.

Filling the cathedral wasn’t just senseless, Lacaton and Vassal argued: It was unnecessary. They proposed that a new structure of the same volume and shape be erected beside the AP2, one specifically designed to house the required galleries, cinema, offices, educational spaces, and art storage. This doubling operation would free up the AP2 to do what it does best: to be empty, or, in other words, to be free to accommodate not only a flexible range of art installations but an ebb and flow of concerts, sporting events, idle wandering,and other to-be-determined activities. They also reasoned that this plan could be carried out within the given budget by making use of low-cost greenhouse construction techniques, which they have appropriated for decades as a kind of open-source spatial framework ideally suited to the light and flexible type of architecture they favor. Defying convention, Lacaton and Vassal were selected to design the project.

In the fall of 2013, the first exhibitions went up and the doors of the FRAC were opened; inside the hangar, a local brass band played Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass, 1997. But only later this year, once a spindly steel footbridge that links Dunkirk’s beachfront to a pair of double doors seventeen feet above the FRAC’s main entrance is completed, will the effects of Lacaton and Vassal’s guideline-sidestepping practice be able to be fully measured. While a link between the FRAC and the waterfront promenade was a required element of the redevelopment plan, Lacaton and Vassal chose to absorb the bridge directly into their plastic-clad addition, extending the path through its entire length. This so-called interior street is now the hinge point within the hybrid complex formed by the twin structures, whose compound name, FRAC/AP2, designates the freed-up hangar as an indeterminate institution, separate from yet related to the art museum with which it is conjoined. With the inauguration of the bridge, the interior street and the hangar will both operate as a public park, their hours and access regulated by the city, independently of the FRAC. This basic administrative distinction, though it may go unnoticed by many wandering into the hangar, is a measurable departure from a trend among high-profile museums in recent years to bill hypercontrolled lobbies, sculpture gardens, and atriums as “public” amenities. By literally displacing art from the hangar, Lacaton and Vassal have created a viable and vital interior public space, one interwoven with the FRAC rather than swallowed up by it.

Arriving at the interior street from the footbridge, you find yourself within a tall slot of space, topped, seventy feet above, by a transparent greenhouse roof. To your left is the concrete (formerly exterior) wall of the hangar, and on the other side the post-and- beam structure of the FRAC. Standing here, you feel as though you are occupying the gap between two buildings, existing in a weird categorical limbo. You’re not quite inside a museum, but there is plenty of art—and art viewing—on display. You might descend one level via the stairs or elevator to the main floor of the hangar. Or you could proceed along the street, admiring, to your right, through glass panels set into the FRAC’s wall, Latifa Echakhch’s À chaque stencil une revolution(For Each Stencil a Revolution), 2007, its gorgeous electric blue having run off the walls and onto the floors of the gallery where it is semipermanently installed.You could walk farther, turn, and look up thirty feet or so, where you might see a host of museumgoers, faces pressed against the transparent partition, looking down into the street and enjoying being looked at in turn. They would be in the fifth-floor Forum, the largest and tallest of the FRAC’s three exhibition halls, a part of which spans the street and then cantilevers like a balcony out over the AP2 hall, letting visitors hang out in its voluminous, unrestored interior somewhere other than the open floor below. One level up, about seventeen feet higher, bodies lean against the metal railing wrapping the Belvedere, a kind of covered patio beneath the inflated plastic pouch panels that compose the roof and continue partway down the building’s sides. And you will have seen all of this without actually having entered the museum.

When I visited the FRAC/AP2 this past winter, the temperature outside approached zero. I entered on the ground floor and ascended the museum by stairs. Passing between the different levels of exhibition space, I moved back and forth through a threshold-like space separated from the galleries by motion-sensor-controlled sliding glass doors and from the exterior by wavy, wafer-thin panels of corrugated polycarbonate, overlapped and then unfussily mounted to galvanized steel supports with hothouse verismo. The temperature there was at least twenty degrees Fahrenheit below that of the exhibition halls. It was not uncomfortably cold, but a strange space for bodies like mine, habituated to building enclosures that offer the predictable comfort of a homogeneous interior climate, never mind the steep ecological costs and variable side effects (sick building syndrome is a particularly extreme effect of artificial environments). The space is even stranger in an art museum, an institutional type that is typically a sensory-deprivation chamber of norms, regulations, and legally enforceable loan agreements specifying everything from the range of relative humidity levels and temperature to footcandle hours and vermin-mitigation measures.

These in-between spaces offer the best view into Lacaton and Vassal’s unorthodox practice. In a sense, they reformulate the calculus of architecture, decreasing the value, both economic and symbolic, typically assigned to formal novelty, surface treatments, and frivolous customization, while elevating the value of spatial volume—the sheer quantity of inhabitable space—and flexibility. And these spaces are where the variables of volume, environment, and material converge most clearly, as well as where the social and atmospheric effects of this convergence are most palpable. The FRAC’s circulation space is a climatic threshold, performing the insulation functions typically consigned to surfaces (thick walls, double facades, double-insulated glass). It is an inhabitable zone with a distinct third climate somewhere between the outside weather and the evenly climatized interior. There are environmental benefits to this approach, but they can’t be considered independently of Lacaton and Vassal’s overriding goal: freedom. By doubling the volume of their Dunkirk project, the architects have produced a structure abundant enough to evade both uniform environmental control (more than half of the FRAC/AP2 interior is not heated or cooled artificially) and total programming (less than half of the FRAC/AP2 functions as an art institution). Here, space, if not quite radically liberating, becomes available for subtle appropriation by occupants—making itself hospitable to unexpected forms of inhabitation.

Like good members of the post-’68 generation, Lacaton and Vassal are enamored of the provisional, the nonproscriptive. They are doggedly critical of modern architecture’s behavior-controlling functionalism, too. But their attitude diverges significantly from earlier attacks on—and aesthetic responses to—modernist orthodoxy. If most postmodernist critiques of functionalism were fueled by antihumanism, a displacement of the subject and a hotheaded visual combativeness—think of deconstructivism’s affinity for fragmentation and disorientation—Lacaton and Vassal have never abandoned the idea that architecture is necessarily about inhabitation, the rhythms of bodies and space. There is, then, a basic tension at the core of Lacaton and Vassal’s work: between their immense optimism about the transformative potential of architecture’s materials—air, light, sound, and space, plus all the heavy stuff—and their deep apprehension about architecture’s propensity to regulate and control.

“Architecture is not so important in life,” remarked Lacaton in a 2003 interview. “We can have a life without architecture.” This may, to some, sound a forlorn note. Yet the weird, marvelous work of Lacaton and Vassal points to something else: a great expansion of what architecture and architects can be and do. In place of a knee-jerk will to form, their hesitations urge a poetics of appraisal. Imagine a posture in which, no longer ensnared by dubious orthodoxies and a priori obligations to design, architecture’s impulse to accommodate—its reflexive Yes—assumes the dexterity of Perhaps and I prefer not to and Why?