Subject to Change: Experiments in the Rehabilitation of European Public Housing


Brian Bo Ying Lee


LA DALLMAN Architects


special edition, Urban Renewal, Revisiting Urban Renewal
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This essay was first submitted for the Fall 2021 seminar Architectural Strategies Against Consumerism at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and subsequently published in the seminar publication Against Throwaway Architecture: Design Strategies Against Consumerism. Revisions have been made for this submission to Docmomo US.



Rushed design processes, poor construction quality, post-occupancy mismanagement and a general lack of maintenance characterize the typical modernist public housing estate; their decline symbolic of the cycle of neighborhood obsolescence and redevelopment that once enabled these projects. While originally conceived as alternatives to blighted post-war urban neighborhoods, these stigma-prone estates throughout Europe and the Americas have ironically become convenient targets for demolition. It is no surprise that proponents for their preservation are first confronted with poor public perception and ideological conflicts – fundamental issues that are often more inhibiting than the physical viability of preservation. Afterall, we are reminded by Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs in Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture (2014) that the concept of obsolescence is not simply a categorically factual state, but a value judgement based on relative comparisons of context, ideology, and circumstance. Attempts to rehabilitate such stigmatized fabric are therefore obliged to negotiate between the ideals of preservation principles and socio-political pressure prioritizing a ‘rebranding.’ This essay evaluates two diverging approaches of building rehabilitation where the ultimate aim is to restore value within existing fabric.


The first is Lacaton & Vassal’s 2016 transformation of Cité du Grand Parc in Bordeaux, a French Grand Ensembles (large-scale social housing complex) originally designed by Jean Royer and Claude Leloup in the 1960s. Here, the architects resisted state-endorsed demolition efforts by the total renewal of building envelopes, resulting in an image refresh that has afforded the buildings new value. Spridd’s Fittja People’s Palace, also completed in 2016 in the troubled Stockholm suburb of Fittja, is presented as the anti-thesis. There, the architects successfully preserved existing housing stock designed by Höjer & Ljungqvist in the 1970s by recasting a building as cultural artifact worth preserving (Otero-Pailos, Langdalen and Arrhenius 2016). Public mindsets are rehabilitated, ultimately negating disruptive construction work. In both cases, the immense pressure to erase these stigmatized housing blocks is surmounted by strategies that attempt to correct public perception. Functional remedies, while no less important to the success of the project, play secondary roles. Contextual underpinnings are critical to their diverging approaches and are key in the evaluation of either project.


In France, urban renewal is employed as a major tool in the national housing policy. For decades, redevelopment has been seen as the solution to eradicating urban ghettos and promoting social diversity. Demolition is often state-financed and supported by the Agence Nationale pour la Rénovation Urbaine (National Agency for Urban Renewal), while rebuilding is sponsored by social landlords and communes with attractive financing schemes (Aernouts, Maranghi and Ryckewaert 2020). Once products of post-war urban renewal schemes, French social housing complexes are now subject to a wave of redevelopment that seeks to diversify neighborhood social compositions and return to ‘traditional’ urban forms. As a result, residents have been confronted with multiple waves of eviction and relocation due to cascading cycles of redevelopment, regularly losing their established ways of living and familial connections. Even as redevelopment seeks to abolish these symbols of urban decay and restore social housing to the scale of the historic French city, their contemporary replacements are criticized as failing to generate improved social constructs (Aernouts, Maranghi and Ryckewaert 2020). Here, the Grands Ensembles are often exploited as scapegoats for flawed social policy while their demolition is instrumentalized as political tools to promote progress.


Lamenting the state’s intention to demolish many housing blocks, Lacaton & Vassal developed PLUS, a study that envisioned adding to and renovating existing housing stock, thereby allowing for their conservation. Their manifesto was subsequently piloted in Paris and Saint-Nazaire. Additions consisting of balconies and winter gardens were added to the exteriors, enlarging habitable space, and rehabilitating the buildings’ image. These projects attracted the attention of Aquitanis – Bordeaux’s social housing association. Lacaton & Vassal were invited to perform a rehabilitation of three social housing blocks in Cité du Grand Parc, a development typical of 1960s French mass housing projects. Fortunately, demolition of the three blocks had already been ruled out prior to Lacaton & Vassal’s commission, giving the architects liberty to replicate a similar process as had been executed in prior work.

Residents also understood the process, having visited the pilot projects, and thanks to two years of tenant engagement prior to the commencement of construction work (Ayers 2019).


The project owes its success primarily to the addition of prefabricated balcony and winter garden units to the faces of the existing buildings, providing substantial new semi-conditioned space to every apartment and improving the overall thermal performance of the buildings.

Existing punched windows in bare concrete walls were replaced by expansive sliding glass doors, allowing daylight to flood the interiors while improving views for residents. Additionally, interior spaces were refurbished while circulatory elements were reconfigured and renovated (Lacaton and Vassal 2015). The overall transformation of the three blocks is noticeable and well-received by residents, who benefit from increased space and comfort without rent increases. The project was completed rapidly, with each of the 530 apartments refurbished in 12 to 16 days. Crucially, residents were able to stay on-site during much of the work, with necessary relocations happening internally between vacant units. Ultimately, the project cost half as much as a comparable new-build scheme at 42,000 euros per apartment (Slessor 2019), proving the financial viability of Lacaton & Vassal’s model for rehabilitation.


Notwithstanding the numerous architectural accolades bestowed upon the architects, the real success lies with Lacaton & Vassal’s ability to rehabilitate Cité du Grand Parc’s public image. Anthropologist James Holston asserts that being an obvious public presentation of the self within, building façades signal distinctions of wealth, class, family, fashion, and ingenuity through various architectural and symbolic forms (Holston 1989). In Bordeaux, the stigmatized aesthetic of the modernist mass housing is replaced entirely through a total facelift, propelling the estate into the future through the introduction of new-ness. The difference is stark; Thorstein Veblen’s idea that uniforms could distinguish between the honorific and humiliating is appropriate. While the imposition of a contemporary layer in front of the ‘obsolete’ façade serves to mask its modernist appearance, it does so by introducing “new temporalities” (Otero-Pailos, Langdalen and Arrhenius 2016) through the aesthetics of the prefabricated balcony units.

In their intervention, Lacaton & Vassal have responded with an approach that evokes the spirit of the modern movement. Ideas of standardization, efficiency and construction innovation are once again promoted as solutions to contemporary budget and schedule constraints. Both the documentation of construction and its subsequent inhabitation echo images of post-war mass housing projects, with a keen emphasis on process and innovation meant to project the architecture into the future. Highly publicized photographs emphasize construction rapidity through prefabrication and highlight the diverse ways residents have exploited their new-found flexibility and spaciousness.

The outcome is intriguingly described as a “dematerialization” of the slab blocks into an aesthetic more “characteristic of light industrial or greenhouse construction than housing” (Slessor 2019). One cannot help but recall modernist agendas of industrial production and machines for living. In a process of “reflexive modernization” (Abramson 2016), Cité du Grand Parc avoids obsolescence by addressing problems of past modernization with new modernization. Paradoxically, Lacaton & Vassal has made its conservation possible through subjecting the buildings to change, suggesting that subsequent rehabilitations are necessary to continuously address issues.

Conversely, the project by Stockholm-based office Spridd seeks not to resist obsolescence through additional construction. Instead, Spridd’s intervention attempts to preserve existing housing stock through the rehabilitation of its stakeholders’ mindsets. Completed in the 1970s as part of the ambitious Miljonprogrammet (Million Homes Program), the Fittja estate was one of many mass housing projects conceived to end Sweden’s post-war housing shortage.

The plan called for a million new dwellings to be completed in just ten years (1965–1974), requiring large-scale industrial production and standardization as the means to its execution. The Million Homes Program was undoubtedly successful in reversing the acute housing shortage and transforming Sweden into an exemplary welfare state, despite ongoing criticism leveled at architectural monotony and poor outdoor environments in many newly built neighborhoods (Hall and Viden 2005). Improvement projects ranging in scale and depth of intervention were rapidly introduced to ‘turn-around’ issues of premature aging, deficient management, vacancies, segregation, and early signs of neighborhood decay. The broad range of management strategies ultimately depended less upon architectural characteristics. Instead, Thomas Hall and Sonja Viden explain that the “the more influence the residents have, the more careful – and less costly – the maintenance and improvement measures will be.” This dependence on resident participation coupled with sustained ideological support for social housing differentiates social housing in Sweden from her western European counterparts, even as many trend towards deregulated housing markets driven by neoliberal economic policies.


Fundamental to Spridd’s strategy is the involvement of local stakeholders in an extensive process of consultation, documentation, and exhibition. Existing conditions of the site were recorded, drawn, and presented at all scales. Documentation extended to the historical development of the estate and included construction and material qualities. In this sense, the architects attempted to portray the Fittja neighborhood as a monument worthy of heritagization (Otero-Pailos, Langdalen and Arrhenius 2016). Local participatory workshops, public art, and exhibitions such as the Fittja Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale served to raise awareness and alter public perception of Sweden’s Miljonprogrammet neighborhoods.

Most importantly, by recasting the buildings and residents as cultural artifacts, Spridd was thus able to generate admiration and appreciation for the buildings’ qualities amongst its habitants.

This led increasing engagement and assertive of existing residents, who demanded minimal change. As a result, only modest construction work was required to update kitchens, bathrooms, reconfigure interiors and refresh public spaces. Here, the process of heritagization is key in the rehabilitation of mindsets, restoring value without the spectacle of dramatic change.


Even as the project has been celebrated as a successful outcome of ground-up preservation, the architects readily acknowledge continued deficiency in accessibility, acoustics, air quality and thermal performance upgrades. The radical efforts to preserve existing fabric has led to an immortalization of long-standing issues associated with design decisions made in the past. Preservation is ultimately an act that fixes an object in time, imposed upon by the gaze of the elite and closely tied to the dominant political and cultural view of the time. Fittja People’s Palace is an exemplar of neighborhood preservation and yet will continue to perpetuate known issues related to environmental performance and access – a balance deemed appropriate by stakeholders at the point of conception. Herein lies a contradiction of preservation, in that it claims to deliver justice even as it adopts a stance predicated on limitation. Architects must therefore be cognizant that the preservation of modern public housing may deprive disadvantaged communities of the necessary improvements to their living standards.


Both case examples suggest a collapsing of roles between the architect and preservationist. Radical advocacy through Lacaton & Vassal’s PLUS and Spridd’s meticulous pre-design documentation of the Fittja estate are crucial to the rehabilitative outcomes of their respective projects. Both resist the traditional role of architects in re-shaping the built environment by promoting a conservation-led approach, adapting design agency, and maintaining relevance amidst shifting values. The growing movement towards environmental sustainability implies that such circumstances will become more common. Lacaton & Vassal and Spridd show how architects can adapt to changing expectations by asserting themselves earlier in the decision-making process, since decisions regarding building conservation are typically made in advance of conventional design processes. Absent of preservation-leaning property owner or governments, and short of establishing legal frameworks some may argue as overstepping the rights of property owners, efforts to rehabilitate everyday ordinary modern architecture would thence rely on the radical advocacy and vision-making expertise of architects and preservationists.


It remains to be seen if the successful solutions at Cité du Grand Parc and Fittja People’s Palace are resilient enough for the unexpected problems of tomorrow. Despite architecture’s deeply embedded influence both as agents and representation of social dispositions, the profession does not act in autonomy to the wider cultural and political movements that tend to reshape and recast material fabric in unexpected ways. A recent personal experience working on a feasibility study for the preservation of a modernist university complex in the United States suggest that the latest energy conservation codes, operational carbon penalties and building material health demands are proving so stringent as to compel total change. Here, it seems as if we are once again entering an incredibly exciting and slightly absurd moment, namely that sustainability is overtaking preservation. I anticipate that the conflicts between historic preservation and lofty sustainability goals will soon become a pervasive topic of discourse. The modern movement serves as a clear reminder that the architect’s best intentions can often be derailed in surprising ways, that popular architectural strategies may rapidly cease to be relevant.



Abramson, Daniel M. 2016. Obsolescence: An Architectural History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Aernouts, Nele, Elena Maranghi, and Michael Ryckewaert. 2020. "The regeneration of large-scale Social Housing estates. Spatial, territorial, institutional and planning dimensions." Research paper, Brussels: Soholab.

Ayers, Andrew. 2019. "Retrospective: Lacaton & Vassal."  July 12. Accessed Dec 14, 2021.

Cairns, Stephen, and Jane M. Jacobs. 2014. Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

EU Mies Van Der Rohe Award. 2021. "Transformation of 530 dwellings – Grand Parc Bordeaux." Accessed Dec 14, 2021.

Hall, Thomas, and Sonja Viden. 2005. "The Million Homes Programme: a review of the great Swedish planning project." Planning Perspectives 20 (3): 301-328.

Holston, James. 1989. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Koolhaas, Rem, and Jorge Otero-Pailos. 2014. Preservation is Overtaking us. New York: GSAPP Books.

Lacaton, Anne, and Jean-Philippe Vassal. 2015. Freedom of Use. Berlin and Cambridge: Sternberg Press.

Otero-Pailos, Jorge, Erik F. Langdalen, and Thordis Arrhenius. 2016. Experimental Preservation. Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers.

Prudon, Theodore H. M. 2008. Preservation of Modern Architecture. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Slessor, Catherine. 2019. "Grand Parc, Bordeaux review – a rush of light, air and views." May 12.

Spridd. 2021. Fittja People's Palace. Accessed Dec 12, 2021.


Veblen, Thorstein. 1994. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications.


About the Author


Brian Bo Ying Lee is currently a Project Manager and Lead Designer at LA DALLMAN Architects, with past experiences at Bjarke Ingels Group, Seattle-based Schemata Workshop, and Singaporean firms CPG Consultants and DP Architects. Lee holds a Master of Architecture with distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where his thesis titled People’s Park Complex: Repairing the Modern City was awarded the prestigious 2022 Clifford Wong Prize in Housing Design. He also holds a Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Sustainable Design from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, where he has received numerous accolades.