Pritzker Prize 2020 Awarded to Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Dublin, Ireland

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. Photo: courtesy of Alice Clancy. Photography: courtesy of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

This year the Pritzker Prize, “the Nobel of Architecture,” moves a couple of steps closer to gender equality – as does the profession it celebrates. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Dublin are the fourth and fifth women to win this international honor, joining the 43 male winners in the prize’s 42-year history. They are recognized primarily for a variety of works – especially their educational buildings – a number in Ireland, but also notable structures in England, France, Italy and Peru. And being Irish, they have a lot of eloquent words, as well, about the mission of architecture in our world.

In one respect this year’s prize is totally unprecedented – the very first time any architect in Ireland has won. (Back in 1982, the fourth Pritzker went to Dublin-born Kevin Roche, who practiced in the United States.) Farrell and McNamara graduated in 1976 from the Department of Architecture at University College Dublin. In 1978 they became founding partners of the firm Grafton Architects, named after the street where it was located.

Their work is characterized by robust, highly visible structural framing, somewhat reminiscent of mid-20th-Century Brutalism, but with smoother surfaces. These support rectangular and sharply angular enclosed blocks. Openings artfully penetrating their walls admit shafts of daylight and offer pleasing views, outward or internal.

The firm’s buildings are often thoughtfully – sometimes inventively – related in form and surface to neighboring buildings, but they never just humbly fit in. Their relatively civil echoes of last-century Brutalism parallel the work of other recent Pritzker honorees, such as Balkrishna Doshi of India (2018) and Alejandro Aravena of Chile (2016).

Overall, there is a matter-of-fact quality to Grafton Architects’ buildings, an expression of the construction process. And the portrait of the two in the Pritzker Prize press release reflects the same down-to-business attitude. They look like they’ve just stepped away from their desks for a moment – and may be sharing an amusing thought. Now, back to work!

Building at Home and Abroad

The Pritzker winners’ 20 or so buildings in Ireland must surely enhance that country’s design stature. Their Urban Institute of Ireland at University College Dublin (2002) houses an interdisciplinary program involving departments of architecture, urban design, archaeology and others, balancing private study rooms with shared spaces that promote collaboration. Its generally rectilinear volumes are clad in the campus’s prevailing brick. And it combines with neighboring buildings to form a generous landscaped court.

The Loreto Community School (2006) in Milford, Ireland, plays angular sloping roofs and light monitors against a rolling landscape. Its wings enclose a courtyard sheltered from the wind.

The limestone walls of the Department of Finance in Dublin (2009) both relate to and contrast with buildings lining its street. A handcrafted bronze grille shelters the deeply recessed sunken entry. On the upper floors, perimeter corridors buffer street noises from the offices. Fresh air for the interior is supplied by intakes integrated into the window configurations.

Urban Institute of Ireland. Photo: courtesy of Ros Kavanagh

Loreto Community School. Photo: courtesy of Ros Kavanagh

The firm’s buildings at the University of Limerick (2012) include a medical school clad in limestone and a nearby cluster of brick-clad student residences. Deep recesses mark the entrances of all the buildings, and ample daylight is introduced to interiors.

Medical School, University of Limerick. Photo: courtesy of Dennis Gilbert

The partners’ commissions in other nations were launched with the Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan (2008), which was named Building of the Year that year at the World Architectural Festival in Barcelona. The complex structure was conceived as an integral portion of the city, with a street-front plaza and accessible interior courtyards. The forms of the school’s auditorium and its undercroft (or lower-level lobby) are visible elements of the cityscape.

Universita Luigi Bocconi. Photos: courtesy of Federico Brunetti

The University Campus UTEC in Lima (2015) was awarded the inaugural RIBA International Prize in 2016 by the Royal Institute of British Architects. The architects developed their competition-winning scheme for this engineering and technology university as a “manmade cliff” fronting a busy sunken highway. The far side of the structure presents a more gentle cascade of planted roof terraces overlooking a low-rise neighborhood. Its exterior and interior spaces are designed to foster interaction among students and faculty.

University Campus UTEC Lima. Photo: courtesy of Iwan Baan

The Toulouse School of Economics (2019) occupies a series of acutely angled volumes housing lecture halls, classrooms, and offices radiating from a central open space. Upper-level covered bridges between brick-walled wings offer appealing views of a river and the historic Toulouse cityscape.

At the Townhouse Kingston University London (2019) a bold colonnade supporting upper level terraces and open corridors presents a strong identity along a tree-lined thoroughfare. Inside, an open stair weaves its way up through the building, connecting uses and encouraging exchange.

Town House Building, Kingston University. Photo: courtesy of Ed Reeves

A major addition to the London School of Economics (now under construction) will help to organize its complex campus of existing buildings. Occupying a prominent site overlooking historic Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it is designed to serve as a gateway to the school at the head of its through-block public street. An extensive undivided street-level common space will offer an essential informal gathering space for the “LSE” community.

London School of Economics and Political Science. Photo: courtesy of Grafton Architects

How many other works in Ireland – elsewhere?

Wider Contributions to Design

The selection of these architects for the Pritzker was not based entirely on the buildings they have designed, but was undoubtedly influenced by other efforts they have made in the cause of better architecture. Both of them taught design for many years at their alma mater in Dublin, and more recently they have been visiting design critics at both Harvard and Yale.

They have also made impressive contributions to the Architecture Biennale in Venice, the biennial showcase for cutting-edge design thinking. An installation they mounted for the 2012 event, titled Common Ground, featured unconventional representations of their Lima project, characterized as “an arena for learning.”

For the 2018 Biennale (the most recent, and the 2020 event is now uncertain), the partners served as curators for the entire show, establishing the theme Freespace, emphasizing the response of users to spaces, the potential of spaces to serve unforeseen uses, and the ways light affects the experience of space. One of the notable installations there, by Swiss participants, challenged one’s experience of architecture by reproducing the spaces of a typical rental apartment at disturbingly disparate scales.

The Evolving Pritzker Program

The movement toward gender equality in architecture is reflected in juries that select the annual winners. This year’s jury is chaired, again, by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (continuing to deal with another kind of judgment). Of the other seven jurors, four are women: past Pritzker winner Kazuyo Sejima of Japan, architect Deborah Burke of New York and Dean of Architecture at Yale, architect Benedetta Tagliabue of Barcelona, and Pritzer executive director Martha Thorne. The three men rounding out the team are past Pritzker winner Wang Shu of China, architectural historian and curator Barry Bergdoll of New York, and arts critic and international diplomat Andre Aranha Correa do Lago of Brazil.

The prize includes a grant of $100,000 (US) and a bronze medallion. It is indicative of the current world situation that this year’s announcement of the Pritzker Prize does not include word on the date and location – typically a place of great architectural distinction – for the presentation of the honor.