Sheila O’ Donnell and John Tuomey, Irish architects get interviewed by RIBA Honorary fellow Tony Chapman, who opens the door to the creative process, lives and work that they do together. They co-founded O’Donnell & Tuomey in 1988 where their designs command a thoughtfulness that inspires many with the rigorous details. Sheila graduated from the University of Dublin, Ireland in 1976 followed by an MA in Environmental Design from Royal College of Arts London in 1980. During her time there, she worked with James Stirling, Colquhoun+Miller, Spence and Webster before establishing her venture back in Dublin. Her active presence in the academic realm in various schools in architecture across Europe, Japan and the United States of America recognises the rare insight she offered. John graduated with a degree in architecture from UCD in 1976  and the title of the first recipient of Masters in Architecture from UDC in 2004 based on reflective design practice. He began working with James Stirling in London followed by working in an Office in Public works in Dublin where he finished two buildings – a Laboratory and a city courthouse that helped formulate the contextual base and theoretical approach to design thinking into the practice. He chaired as one of the external examiners for many years at AA- Architectural Association, London and University of Cambridge, East London. Sheila and John got elected a member of Aosdana, an affiliation of Irish Artists in 2009 and 2010 respectively. They are an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. In 2015, they won a joint recipient of the RIBA Gold Medal, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Brunner Prize in recognition of a lifetime work.

Youtube for Architects: The Elements of Architecture – 50 minute version - Sheet2
An image of John Tuomey. Image source -©
Youtube for Architects: The Elements of Architecture – 50 minute version - Sheet1
An image of Sheila O’Donnell. Image source – ©

The elements of architecture, a conversation filled movie begins to unfold about a cottage in Santa Maura, west of Ireland where Sheila and John found their escape from the city and every day living-working conditions to regroup and figure out strategies with a fresh approach. The two bonded over writing manifestos against the teaching programme during their graduate studies and their tutors told them they were jokey and cynical. Their interest narrowed down to exploring Brutalism and constructivism where the library helped them with resources and grew awareness about works of Italian architect Aldo Rossi in Europe. He redefined design to value the culture of European cities. A discovery of his small amount of writing made an impactful influence on Sheila and John to turn tables around in their design approach and truly understand the elements of architecture that work with their design principles. They firmly believed that buildings must indicate and display the lives of its occupants that reviews the sense of rebel nature that grew in the veins of the youth from that era. 

Youtube for Architects: The Elements of Architecture – 50 minute version - Sheet3
Trinity College Dublin Irish Art Research centre – converted from an existing horse stable. Image source – ©

During their thesis Ed Jones, a visiting critic suggested to send working and design drawings of John to Sir Sterling where they later began to work for the next two years until the firm let go of people due to lack of good projects. Sheila, John and a few friends took a road trip to Rome via Switzerland to look at works of Ba Remini and Bernini until they returned for work. John began producing a series of six proportional drawings with plan and projected elevations in the air to resolve complex geometry of the Stuttgart. Jim colour coded them and handed it over to Museum of Modern Arts for exhibition of the work; this was a productive outcome at a time where there wasn’t much work and an enormous amount of time passed by discussing architecture and theories of it. They left London soon after, disenchanted with the idea that people began building that incorporated historical motifs and ornamentations to them that represented a similarity to that of a badge in honour. They returned to Ireland and looked at traditional ways of building into the landscape, monastic settlements, castles and tower houses that resonated the essential intelligence in the way they integrated into the landscape. 

“ We were not interested in Terra motifs, easy as they were in ruins. Those left in their stripped-down form, something that might be on the way of being built. Again not that different from something which is on the path of being deconstructed by time.” – Sheila O’ Donnell.

Olympicopolis project - Watercolor renders. Image source - ©
Olympicopolis project – Watercolor renders. Image source – ©

They begin working on every project together until an idea streamlines from the brief, physical immersion and aspects the site suggests in terms of its energy and dynamics that allow them to think of additions and subtractions in the process. Water colour perspective developed to be a chief part of the work based on computer drawings and models that get generated from measured drawings; they preferred working on designs by hand. They also restored many buildings to transform them to work differently for a new community in a new time, for example, they converted a horse stable into a research laboratory space. However, they left horse markings and footprints untouched to give an illusion of a place with busy activity showcasing a fresh approach to design elements of architecture. They also placed a concrete bench attached to their office studio wall for anyone who would like to stop and enjoy their to-go meal.

They try to answer pursuits of architecture to search for a form by defining and finding the elements of permanence, absolute and shifting that exude a strong soft and hard edge. Sheila and John have stuck to exploring the archaic materials – brick and concrete. They recycle some of these materials when buildings are left empty or subjected to demolition for the materials hold up the space leaving the delicacies of design to get wiped away in due course time. The two strongly believe buildings exist to discover their own identities that speak of ephemeral design interventions by looking through the projects they have done throughout many years.

The Saw Swee Hock Student Centre, LSE, London designed in a geometry with many angles that complement the surrounding and respond to the lines of the buildings around yet dominate its own identity by exploration of brick as the centre houses 15 different functions that overlap movement of life of the campus. Thus, making their buildings a stand-out piece of architecture that gains them recognition. They fall short of a unanimous consensus in Sterling Jury where their style or technique or design element does not invite and connect with everyone on the jury panel to an extent. Where their designs sometimes expose the label of being tortured or not rational enough to fit into modern architecture theories.

LSE Saw Swee Hock Student Center, London, United Kingdom. Image source - ©
LSE Saw Swee Hock Student Center, London, United Kingdom. Image source – ©

The elements of the architecture movie concludes with the simple statement that Sheila and John, breathe and live architecture even in their spare time or holiday – they are either witnessing it, thinking about it or discussing it. They also state that an architect or designer can not change the world. However, an example needs manifestation into reality to prove ideas that people, in general, can not imagine in its realised form. They do add about the aspect where working at the studio and teaching at the university helps develop design solution crossovers that formulate new perspectives one can read, write, draw or walk architecture. Their method and process consists of poetry of space and material embedded in their projects across Ireland, London and Netherlands.

Link of the movie:-

To stay updated about works of Sheila O’Donnell and John Toumey, visit their website regarding the same –


Subhay Baberwal, a practising architect at Taller-S and a visiting faculty at SJB School of architecture and planning, Bangalore. He is an art and culture enthusiast as well as a certified wildlife Eco-volunteer by the Karnataka Forest Department for activities regarding conservation, census, preservation. Furthermore, he is a poet and currently exploring his voice in architecture writing along with being a ghostwriter for mobile application, fashion collections and bloggers.