by Meghna MehtaJun 25, 2020
Yvonne Farrell (69) and Shelley McNamara (68), co-founders of Dublin-based Grafton Architects, are the fourth and fifth women to have won the Pritzker Architecture Prize - architecture’s highest honour - following Zaha Hadid in 2004, Kazuyo Sejima in 2010 (with Ryue Nishizawa) and Carme Pigem in 2017 (with Ramon Vilalta and Rafael Aranda). The announcement comes a few days ahead of the International Women’s Day, which supports the spirit of #EachForEqual this year.
The story goes back to 50 years ago, little Yvonne Farrell lay on a cushion on the floor as her mother played the piano, filling the space with music and wonder under that walnut instrument. Later, an oak forest at the edge of the town of Tullamore in Ireland, with its carpet of bluebells every spring, would light up her eyes and nurture in her a fascination for spaces attuned to nature. For Shelley McNamara, it was a visit as a child to an enormous 18th century house in Limerick - one with a beautiful mahogany lined pharmacy shop and a little Montessori school - that aroused a sensation of space and light that would set her on a journey of creating architecture.
Today, the two incredible women continue to harness the power of this wonder as they change the course of history by being the first female pair to win the coveted honour.
Pritzker jury recognised the pair for the integrity in their approach to both their buildings as well as the way they conduct their practice, their belief in collaboration, their responsible attitude toward the environment and their ability to be cosmopolitan while embracing the uniqueness of each place of work.
“The collaboration between Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara,” states Pritzker, “represents a veritable interconnectedness between equal counterparts”.
As architects and educators since the 1970s, Farrell and McNamara have built a portfolio of works that shows deep respect for culture and context and demonstrates a mastery of the urban environment and craft of construction.
STIR delves into the spirit of their architecture and what makes these women a force to reckon with.
1. The Spirit of PlaceThe work by Farrell and McNamara reflects a deep understanding of the setting to which the architecture belongs, and it aims to enhance and improve local communities. Their buildings double as ‘good neighbours’ that seek to make a contribution towards the betterment of the city as a whole instead of creating isolated entities.
The North King Street Housing in Dublin (2000), for example, is one such project that manifests this idea. The project’s inner courtyard dissolves the consciousness of the nearby busy streets, making its spaces calm and welcoming for its inhabitants.
Architecture is a framework for life. It anchors us and connects us to the world in a way which possibly no other space-making discipline can.” - Shelly McNamara
2. Crafting Skin
Grafton Architects’ reveal an understanding of the processes of design and construction from large scale structures to the smallest details. They have always emphasised that the biggest impact is made by the minutest detail.
The Urban Institute of Ireland (Dublin, 2002) uses what the architects call a 'crafted skin'. The project brings a visually interesting structure through changes in materials responding to openings, folds, and requirements for shade. The offices for the Department of Finance in Dublin, on the other hand, showcase an efficient and sustainable building on a particularly sensitive site. The selection of materials and construction techniques as well as the use of features such as sanded limestone on façade and handcrafted bronze railings demonstrate the project in its context.
At the core of our practice is a real belief that architecture matters. It is a cultural spatial phenomenon that people invent. - Yvonne Farrell
3. The Spirit of Diversity
From large institutional buildings, civic and academic institutions to a house of only a little more than 100 sqm, the architecture of Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara reveals a diversity in scale and typologies. Their approach eschews grand gestures yet manages to create buildings that are both monumental, as well as intimate for the community within.
In the University Campus UTEC (2015) in Lima, Peru or the School of Economics Building (2008) at the Universita Luigi Bocconi, the architects have achieved a human scale through the composition of spaces and volumes of different sizes.
4. Building Relationships
Works by the Irish pair manifest a conscious dialogue between the internal and external realm, public and the 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 with one another,” says Farrell.
Universite Toulouse 1 Capitole, School of Economics (Toulouse, France 2019) built with elements such as brick buttresses, ramps, courtyard are a metaphor for the city which has abundant bridge, walls, promenades and stone towers. Universita Luigi Bocconi (Milan, Italy, 2008), on the other hand, fosters a bond between its occupants and the outside city through the means of a vertical campus and a floating canopy that allows for engagement between passersby and students.
5. The Spirit of Guidance
The spirit of generosity combined with a deep understanding of people, geography, culture, and context continues to be the living manifesto of the architects. They have taught at various prestigious universities across the world, including their alma mater, School of Architecture at University College Dublin.
“Teaching for us has always been a parallel reality. It’s a way of trying to distill our experience and gift it to other generations coming along, so that they actually play a role in the growing of that culture,” says Farrell.
Farell and McNamara were the co-curators of the 16th edition of La Biennale di Venezia in 2018, in which the theme FREESPACE received much recognition from the global architectural and design community. In 2019, their practice was honoured with RIBA Gold Medal 2020, the UK’s highest award in architecture. The duo continues to push boundaries of architecture with spaces that sit close to nature, are liberating and foster happiness.
(Information: Courtesy of Pritzker)