Architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara have been named as the 47th and 48th Laureates of the Pritzker Prize on the 3rd of March this year, accentuating the globally muted community of women in architecture.

Founding members of the Dublin-based practice Grafton Architects, Yvonne Farrell (1951) and Shelley McNamara (1952) met at the School of Architecture at University College Dublin (UCD), where they studied under rationalist and rebellious architects who challenged the preexisting thought and culture of the institution. 

The second duo (2010- Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Tokyo-based SANAA), and first Ireland- based architects to win the most prestigious honor in the architectural community, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara established their firm in Dublin over forty years ago, and have completed projects located in multiple countries. 

The Jury this year included Stephen Breyer (Chair)  (U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Washington, DC), André Aranha Corrêa do Lago (Architectural Critic, Curator and Brazilian Ambassador to India. Delhi, India), Barry Bergdoll (Architecture Historian, Educator, Curator, and Author. New York.), Deborah Berke (Architect and Educator. New York.), Kazuyo Sejima (Architect and 2010 Pritzker Laureate. Tokyo, Japan.), Benedetta Tagliabue (Architect and Educator. Barcelona, Spain.), Wang Shu (Architect, Educator and 2012 Pritzker Laureate. Hangzhou, China.) and Martha Thorne (Executive Director) (Dean, IE School of Architecture & Design. Madrid, Spain.

‘For their integrity in their approach to both their buildings, as well as the way they conduct their practice, their belief in collaboration, their generosity towards their colleagues, especially as evidenced in such events as the 2018 Venice Biennale, their unceasing commitment to excellence in architecture, their responsible attitude toward the environment, their ability to be cosmopolitan while embracing the uniqueness of each place in which they work, for all these reasons and more, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are awarded the 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize.’ – Source: Pritzker Prize website

“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. Thank you for this great honor.” – Yvonne Farrell.

Architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara
Architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara along with three other architects established Grafton Architects in 1978. The firm was named after the street where it was located, with the intention of emphasizing the focus on a sense of place rather than individuals. With time, the two female architects were the only existing members of the original 5 and led the firm with evident passion towards their principles of human-centric design. 25 years later, the Ireland based firm did its first international project 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. This opened up a door full of opportunities for the native architects, who have been creating their own architectural voice by designing modern, bold and impactful projects in Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Peru. 

Before winning the Pritzker this year, Grafton Architects, for their daring and innovative human-centric work, have won numerous accolades in Architecture such as the Jane Drew Prize (2015), the inaugural RIBA International Prize (2016), and the RIBA Royal Gold Medal (2020) among others. 

“The collaboration between Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara represents a veritable interconnectedness between equal counterparts,” states Pritzker. “They demonstrate incredible strength in their architecture, show deep relation to the local situation in all regards, establish different responses to each commission while maintaining the honesty of their work, and exceed the requirements of the field through responsibility and community.”

University College Dublin graduates, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara have always shared a passion for teaching describing it as a way of trying to distill their experience and gift it to other generations coming along so that they actually play a role in the growth of that culture. Their teaching journey took them to UCD after graduating in 1976 as educators and later adjunct professors (2015). Apart from UCD, they also taught in a number of prestigious universities including Yale University, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Accademia Architettura in Mendrisio, Switzerland, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, etc. Both are elected members, and the first architects to be admitted, of esteemed Irish arts organization Aosdána. 

They are Fellows of The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and International Honorary Fellows of 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) and have lectured internationally.

“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 to me.” Shelley McNamara recalls.

“One of my earliest memories is of lying on my back on a cushion on the floor underneath the baby grand piano we had at home. While my mother played the piano above me, I remember being aware of the wonderful space filled with music under that walnut instrument. I grew up in Tullamore, Co. Offaly, Ireland—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.” Shares Yvonne Farrell. 

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara

The firm takes pride in their extensive research, observation, curious exploration and deep passion for connecting culture and context. Their principle of improving local communities, which in turn impacts the urban fabric, is seen through their thoughtfully zoned and detailed designs that produce intimate spaces, creating a dialogue between the building and its context. Their understanding of the processes of design and construction reflects in their fresh, modern and innovative projects with the smallest details causing big impacts while maintaining their simplicity and skilled minimalism. Their honest approach towards design comes from the ethos and values of the firm, which is, Humanism, craft, generosity and cultural connection between architecture and context.  

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are known for achieving human scale through the interesting composition of spaces and volumes over a range of projects from large institutional buildings to houses a little over 100 square meters. 

McNamara states, “Architecture is a framework for human life. It anchors us and connects us to the world in a way that possibly no other space-making discipline can. At the core of our practice is a real belief that architecture matters. It is a cultural spatial phenomenon that people invent.”  

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara

One of the common links between their design is the creative confrontation between public and private spaces, as seen by the intuitive design of the Universita Luigi Bocconi

School of Economics, Milan, Italy by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara

School of Economics, Milan, Italy. (2008) Grafton Architects-designed space the scale of the city by transcending the barrier between the structure and its immediate context. A central public space that extends into the city invites the public to the heart of the structure. A large window allows the urban life of Milan with its traffic, pedestrians and cultural context to interact with the interior spaces. 

The School of Economics building at the Universita Luigi Bocconi was named World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona.

Another element of emphasis is the natural light entering the building. Solstice Arts Centre in Navan, Ireland, (2007) consists of a private introverted courthouse above the open public rooms for the community and theatre below. The openings in the roof and walls allow plenty of natural light into the structure, providing warmth and comfort and a glimpse of the gallery above to its visitors. The hovering grey-black marble mosaic slab cantilevers over the civic space, creating an inviting entry. This material will fade over time and was chosen to match the color of the slated large roofscapes of the adjacent churches.

Continuing the trend of availability of natural light and the building’s response to its surroundings, Offices for the Department of Finances (2009)  was designed with windows on four sides, benefiting from the varying seasonal path of the Irish sun. Each window frames a panoramic view out over Dublin, providing a type of democracy of views of the city. The windows integrate grilled ‘nostrils’ inhaling natural air and distributing it to the internal office spaces. 

Projects like the Urban Institute of Ireland, UCD, Ireland (2002) show Grafton’s immense research and thought behind the selection of materials and their integrity when it comes to context and sustainability. The fragile terracotta wall tiles appear to be supported by the contrasting robust and solid plinth, establishing an “ebb and flow of the form as it slips in and out of the ground” [as described by an employee]. The material selection compliments the terracotta roof tiles, granite plinths, mica speckled render and red brick form of the adjacent buildings while maintaining the monolithic molded potential of the material and allowing flexibility to play with the surface.

 

Grafton Architects have demonstrated an acute sensitivity towards geography, changing climates and nature. This expertise is the result of undulated research and observation put into the native projects designed among the mountains and cliffs of Ireland. Their experience is evident in projects like UTEC, Lima, Peru (2015). Conceived as a ‘new cliff’, this project is located along the seaside cliffs of Lima, connected to the sea through a green valley. Following the ethics of the firm, the continuous sea edge created by the campus defines the university and the northern boundary at the base of the ‘cliff ’ face encourages cultural interaction with the auditorium, conference rooms, and the theatre/ movie venue. 

 

Their designs maintain a dialogue between interior and exterior spaces, as seen in the North King St. Housing, Dublin, Ireland (2000) with its permeable yet protected central courtyard with common gateways and arches connecting it with the street while a series of large doorways as seen from the street, provide access to the apartments. The lack of design features in the facade brings a calm modesty to regain the quiet monumental presence of adjacent warehouse buildings. 

 

“Farrell and McNamara create spaces that are at once respectful and new, honoring history while demonstrating a mastery of the urban environment and craft of construction,” reads a press statement announcing the win. 

“Balancing strength and delicacy, and upholding a reverence of site-specific contexts, their academic, civic and cultural institutions, as well as housing developments, result in modern and impactful works that never repeat or imitate, but are decided of their own architectural voice.”

Their architectural style can be defined by the design philosophy followed by Farrell and McNamara, which dwells in their purposefully rich yet modest, considerate, intuitive, daring and effortlessly bold architecture. The concentrated and unwavering focus towards contextual and human-centric designs, considerate of topography and nature, are, to add to the list of achievements, a leading example of perceptive and sustainable architecture. 

“Within the ethos of practice such as ours,” said McNamara in a statement, “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. It is also a wonderful recognition of the ambition and vision of the clients who commissioned us and enabled us to bring our buildings to fruition.” 

Pioneers in a field that has traditionally been a male-dominated profession, they are also beacons to others as they forge their exemplary professional path. Being among the only 5 women to have won a Pritzker, Farrell and McNamara have joined the league with Zaha Hadid, Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, and Carme Pigem of RCR Arquitectes. 

Grafton Architects, displaying incredible strength in Architecture, have maintained a deep relation to local dynamics while designing with sustainability and urban impact in mind. Their projects are concentrated with interactive elements and spaces as a result of the focus on integrating the building with the urban culture. The consistently responsible designs reflect their honesty in work, by concealing the extensive research, observation, complexity of spatial design and planning, selection of appropriate materials, integrated spaces, and sustainability behind a veil of minimalist and simple, yet impactful architecture.  

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