Eve Kelliher looks at the creative ethos underpinning the work of Pritzker Prize laureates Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara
Two leading architects have put Ireland on the global design map.
Tuesday saw Dublin-based Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara win an award regarded internationally as architecture’s highest accolade when they were announced as the 2020 Pritzker Prize Laureates.
Ms Farrell and Ms McNamara, who run the Grafton practice, are the first female duo to win the award. Just three women have been honoured with the prize before them in its 41-year history and the only previous Irish winner was Kevin Roche, in 1982.
Following the announcement, Ms Farrell says: “Architecture could be described as one of the most complex and important cultural activities on the planet.
“To be an architect is an enormous privilege. To win this prize is a wonderful endorsement of our belief in architecture.”
As architects and educators since the 1970s, the duo create spaces that are at once respectful and new, honouring history while demonstrating a mastery of the urban environment and craft of construction.
Ms Farrell and Ms McNamara’s “integrity” in their approach to both their buildings, as well as the way they conduct their practice, their belief in collaboration, and their generosity towards their colleagues, was highlighted by the judges.
The honour was “a wonderful recognition of the ambition and vision” of the clients who commissioned them and enabled them to bring buildings to fruition, according to Ms McNamara.
“Within the ethos of a practice such as ours, we have so often struggled to find space for the implementation of such values as humanism, craft, generosity, and cultural connection with each place and context within which we work. It is therefore extremely gratifying that this recognition is bestowed upon us and our practice and upon the body of work we have managed to produce over a long number of years,” she adds.
Reflecting on their childhoods, Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, native Ms McNamara recalls: “My awakening to the experience of architecture was a visit as a child to an enormous 18th-century house on the beautiful main street of the city of Limerick where my aunt lived.
“Her husband had a beautiful mahogany-lined pharmacy shop on the ground floor, and she ran a little Montessori school in a room over the entrance hall.
“This aroused a sense of wonder as to what a house could be and I remember vividly the sensation of space and light, which was an absolute revelation.”
Ms Farrell, who grew up in Tullamore, Co Offaly, says one of her earliest memories is of lying on her back on a cushion on the floor underneath the baby grand piano in her childhood home.
“While my mother played the piano above me, I remember being aware of the wonderful space filled with music under that walnut instrument,” she says.
Tullamore is, she adds, “a town of streets and squares, stone warehouses, crafted houses and a canal that cut a wonderful line into the landscape”. “An oak forest at the edge of the town had a carpet of bluebells every spring. Nature felt very close,” says Ms Farrell.
The pair met while students at University College Dublin in 1974. Four years later, along with three others, they established Grafton Architects, named after the street of their original office.
Their first international commission transpired 25 years later, with Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan (Milan, Italy, 2008), which was awarded World Building of the Year at the 2008 inaugural World Architectural Festival in Barcelona.
Significant projects have included North King Street Housing (Dublin, 2000); Urban Institute of Ireland, University College Dublin (2002); Solstice Arts Centre (Navan, 2007); Loreto Community School (Milford, Ireland, 2006); Offices for the Department of Finance (Dublin, 2009); and Medical School, University of Limerick (2012).
Ireland’s landscape informs their acute sensitivities to geography, changing climates and nature in each of their sites.
Their buildings consistently remain purposefully rich, yet modest, enhancing cities and lending to sustainability while responding to local needs, according to the Pritzker jury.
University Campus UTEC Lima (Lima, Peru, 2015) is located on a challenging site with a highway sunk in a ravine on one side and a residential neighbourhood on the other.
The result is a vertical and cascading building responding to both site and climatic needs.
Its open spaces were designed to deliberately welcome in the cooling breezes of the ocean and minimise the need for air-conditioning.
At the Offices for the Department of Finance (Dublin, Ireland, 2009), the selection of local limestone used in thick panels grants strength to the building.
Windows recessed or flush with the façade have grilles below them to circulate fresh air throughout the building. Exposures on all sides of the building, atypical of the architecture in the city, offer panoramic views.
The architects are conscious of the dialogue between the internal and external, evidenced by the mingling of public and private spaces. “What we try to do in our work is to be aware of the various levels of citizenship and try to find an architecture that deals with overlap, that heightens your relationship to one another,” adds Ms Farrell.
Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan fosters a sense of community between its occupants and the vibrant city that extends well beyond the vertical campus through its ground-floor public space, which continues indoors, and its floating canopy that overlaps the ground below, engaging passersby with students.
Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, School of Economics (Toulouse, France, 2019) features brick buttresses, ramps and courtyards, which are metaphors for the city filled with bridges, walls, promenades and stone towers.
North King Street Housing (Dublin) is intentionally void of external design elements to resonate with the restraint of the neighbouring warehouses.
The architects are fellows of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) and international honorary fellows of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).
They have previously held the Kenzo Tange chair at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (2010) and the Louis Kahn chair at Yale University (2011).
Grafton Architects was the recipient of the 2012 Biennale di Venezia Silver Lion Award for the exhibition “Architecture as New Geography”.
Ms Farrell and Ms McNamara were appointed as 2018 co-curators for the 16th International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia.
They were awarded the RIAI James Gandon Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture by the RIAI in 2019 and the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2020.