When Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey, who practice in partnership as O'Donnell + Tuomey, were named as this year's recipients of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, a palpable collective satisfaction appeared to spread throughout the profession. No one could find criticism in Joseph Rykwert and Níall McLaughlin's nomination, nor the ultimate choice of the RIBA Honours Committee, to bestow the award upon the Irish team. Their astonishingly rigourous body of work, compiled and constructed over the last twenty five years, has an appeal which extends beyond Irish and British shores. A robust stock of cultural, community and educational projects, alongside family homes and social housing projects, leaves little doubt about the quality, depth and breadth of their mutual capabilities and the skill of those that they choose to collaborate with.
Read the conversation with the Gold Medallists after the break.
The Royal Gold Medal itself, which recognises "those who have made a significant contribution to the advancement of architecture", is approved personally by Queen Elizabeth II. Awarded since 1848, it places O'Donnell and Tuomey in an esteemed lineage of architects from Rem Koolhaas to Peter Zumthor, Oscar Niemeier to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Gehry to Charles and Ray Eames. Although the complete list is certainly impressive, the laureate to which they perhaps feel the strongest affinity to is James Stirling (1980) - the British architect of RIBA Stirling Prize fame (for which O'Donnell + Tuomey have been shortlisted no less than five times), and a man who's work and attitude conferred a formative influence on them during their fledgling years from university working in his London studio.
On Monday 2nd February they delivered the annual Royal Gold Medal lecture at the RIBA in London. People had thronged to the UK capital to hear their thoughts and ideas on Space for Architecture delivered in six sections, which is also the subject of their latest book. Having taken to the stage they exchanged smiles and nods as they spoke thematically about their accomplishments and passions. Their words, both calm and profound in their analytical depth, resonated through the audience without pretence. A standing ovation gave unequivocal substance to the RIBA's decision to acknowledge their work and contribution to the discipline at large.
Earlier that day I caught up with them to discuss the Royal Gold Medal and what the moment of reflection it offers means. We spoke about some of the overarching themes which makes their practice so admired by those in the profession, by clients, and by the end-users of their ever-expanding portfolio of public buildings.
You’re among the youngest recipients of the medal in history, and also the first Irish partnership to receive it in over forty years. With this in mind, what does receiving the Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects mean to you personally?
SO: It means a lot! For us, London is a hugely important part of our architectural education. Even when we were in Dublin we had people coming from London to come and tutor, so a sense of British architecture has been so important. We spent five years in London and realised during that time, coming in and out of the RIBA, that the RIBA Gold Medal has gone to all our heroes like Corbusier, Kahn, Aalto. We recognised quickly that it’s not just British, it’s an international award.
We were really quite surprised to get the call - very humbled and incredibly honoured! It gives you huge encouragement to continue, especially because the practice of architecture isn’t always easy. It gives you the feeling that you’re not wasting your time; that it’s worth putting in the effort.
This particular award offers a moment to pause and reflect and look at what has been a continually evolving, very rigorous portfolio of projects. Does this medal mark a special moment in your professional career, or is it just business as usual?
JT: I think that we’re struck by the integrity of the medal and what it stands for. It’s one award in life that you can’t apply for – it comes to you. You can’t aspire to it.
As it happens we're just over twenty five years in our working partnership so it does come at a time when it’s interesting to reflect on what our next move is. We’ve just finished one set of buildings and we’re now starting to build the Central European University in Budapest, which is a quite far from home.
We certainly have a sense that our work will continue outside of Ireland so maybe this medal reflects, more than anything, the fact that we’re more international than we were ten years ago. Alongside the publication of our book, receiving this medal coincides with a period of reflection we've been in anyway - one when we have been trying to put some shape to our body of work.
The book in question (Space for Architecture) is special because it’s not only a monograph of projects but an extended visual and written essay that navigates through a collection of significant themes. In it you talk about the idea of “close noticing” as a useful tactic in architecture, which is drawn from the practice of creative writing. How do you see the relationship between architecture and writing?
JT: I think literacy, rather than writing per se, is very important to us. In this we’re not unique, but at the same time not every architect likes buildings in the same way! Even if we weren't designing buildings we’d still be looking at buildings – we like the culture of architecture, the ideas in the architects’ minds, and we like treating buildings as the evidence of the embodiment of those ideas.
And so writing, and literacy in relation to the discipline as well as in relation to being able to account for the thoughts of the discipline, is very important to us. I think that the poetics of architecture - or the ‘poetic purpose’ - is a fundamental under-the-table all-time reality of architecture. That ideas live in things. If we can read books about literature and drama, and even science, why should you not be able to read about architecture?
SO: I think that there is some kind of parallel between how you put words together and how you put a building together. We find words really useful and extremely important in trying to pull together the complex strands of an idea about a building. We use words a lot in trying to find out what something is because, of course, many words are strongly associated with images (such as 'atmosphere', for example).
In teaching, you also have to communicate though words about something which is not necessarily words. Earlier this morning we were actually thinking about ‘close noticing’: that the noticing, the selection, and the pinning down of objects and things and places you see around you is similar to editing words. There is something in the disciplines of both writing and architecture that is, for us, completely intertwined.
The word ‘context’ is perhaps an overused word in the profession. In your practice however, context is interpreted slightly differently. You use the phrase “contextual imperative” to describe how abstract, intangible objects and ideas push and pull a design. How much of your own cultural context do you bring to your projects?
SO: When we first went back to Ireland, for the following ten or fifteen years people kept saying, “tell us the way in which you’re Irish architects! What’s Irish about your work?” In fact, we did go back thinking that we would find the spirit or soul of Irish architecture but we realised later that what we were actually doing was trying to understand the specifics of the place in which we were working. We noticed that the idea that context does include history and culture and things other than the physical dimensions of the building next door.
At some point before we started working abroad we began to realise that it wasn’t just about ‘Irishness', but more about believing that you need to absorb all of the 'contextual imperatives' of a place. We now transport that method of working- we start each project by immersing ourselves in understanding the physical material (and immaterial) culture of a place. I think that this is something that has driven our practice from the very beginning, and it’s liberating to know that you can apply that it all over the world.
For example, we’ve noticed that the pattern of buildings in Budapest, compared to the pattern of buildings that we’re used to in Ireland or London, is very strong and therefore very evident. The whole city has its own dimensional orbit which is not the same as what we’re used to.
JT: Sheila went to the City Architect in Budapest at the time in which were developing our initial designs. Before introducing our project she gave a reading of the city - one that stemmed from out efforts to try to look at it very closely - but from a basis of innocence, as it were. At one point in the presentation the City Architect interrupted and said “I see you've fallen in love with our city!” I think this feeling of finding the beauty is certainly a motivator for us.
Professor Saw, the donor for the Saw Swee Hock Centre in London, said (something along the lines of) in his speech at the opening of the building: “I have been looking at your work and it seems to me that you seem to thrive on lousy sites!” I think what he was saying - or at least what I was understanding - was that we were reading the individual place and trying to work back into the situation.
I suppose that that has been our fortunate misfortune. Our practice has developed through having to always make sense out of things that have been given to us; try to make 'poetics' out of them. The trouble with context in the way that it has been interpreted by the stream of the establishment is that it is taken to be a matter of appearances alone; a Mansard roof, a cornice, or a colour of a material. But we think of context as being: how would you describe it if you weren’t looking at it? And what would you say about its characteristics that sticks in the retinal image of your mind?
In the Photographers’ Gallery (London) we were more interested in the spatial geological feeling of the pressure of the site, and that’s what we wrote about in our context report to the planners - and that’s what the planners opened their minds to.
SO: There’s a phrase that Elia Zenghelis used years ago when he did a project on a little Greek island. He talked about trying to find the “latent intelligence of a place”, and I think that is something that we consciously try to do. We’re just trying to adjust the site to enhance its own natural characteristics and make it more itself; to use the building as a means of interpreting the place it sits in.
There’s a beautiful part in your book looking at domestic scenes. I’ve noticed that there are many examples of ‘domestic details’ being transferred into your designs for public buildings, only on a much larger scale. The banisters in the Lyric Theatre, for example, or intimate moments facing framed views through picture windows in the Glucksman Gallery. Is this a conscious act of design?
JT: I think that there is certainly a feeling between us that buildings are familiar things. If you think about vernacular as the actual spoken language, then why should a public building have something which estranges people?
SO: When we were doing our first public building - the Irish Film Centre - there was a lot of time to do the design because the client didn’t yet have the money. It was a slow process and, in the meantime, we spoke a lot to the clients about what they wanted. It was clear that they wanted the building to feel easy and comfortable and, between us, we all agreed that there should never be a moment when someone comes into the building and in any way feels that someone might look at them and wonder what they’re doing there.
We felt that people should feel ownership; feel relaxed and calm. It should be a continuation of the public world of the street. We are very interested in the psychology of how a building affects a person so we’re always trying to mitigate the risk of people feeling intimidated as they enter - especially in public buildings. We try to make sure that our buildings feel like it’s a building for you - whoever you are.
The citation for your Royal Gold Medal stated that your practice is “vitally involved with working in the public realm, something so neglected today, which is perhaps [your] greatest strength.” What is your definition of public or civic space?
JT: We were struck when we read that part of the citation because we suddenly realised that being “vitally involved in the public realm” is just a baseline for us! I think that even if we’re doing a private house it always starts with the relationship between its threshold and its setting, and then its social setting. I fundamentally think that that’s what we think architecture is for: to give shape to everyday routines of society, or to make a society out of those everyday routines. To have building feel like it’s part of the fabric of social life is second nature to us.
SO: For us, the architecture of a public building extends beyond its own walls right until it’s stopped by the next building. That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t design a public space, because we have done a lot of small public realm projects, but usually as a continuation of a building we’re making.
JT: I would say that we’ve never done a building that hasn’t yielded or sacrificed something to the public realm. We’ve never done a building which hasn’t stepped back a little, or pulled in the street a little bit. And I don’t think we ever will.
See a selection of O'Donnell + Tuomey's projects on ArchDaily:
LSE Saw Hock Student Centre / O'Donnell + Tuomey Architects
Lyric Theatre Belfast / O'Donnell & Tuomey Architects
Timberyard Social Housing / O'Donnell + Tuomey Architects