This year, architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, has been granted to Grafton Architects' Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Dublin, Ireland. The 2020 Laureates, who are both educators and architects, are known for their powerful yet delicate approaches. Their contextual and modern interventions are very attentive to history, demonstrating high levels of sensitivity and craftsmanship.
In just over 40 years, the duo has completed numerous projects that helped enhance cities and respond to local needs in Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Peru. Farrell and McNamara, the 47th and 48th Laureates of the Pritzker Prize, are the first two female recipients of the award from Ireland.
The duo behind the 2018 Venice Biennale, who describes architecture “as one of the most complex and important cultural activities on the planet”, met at the School of Architecture at University College Dublin (UCD). Upon graduating, both Farrell and McNamara were offered the opportunity of teaching. In fact, they have always considered this part of the profession as a “parallel reality […] and a way to distill [their] experience and gift it to other generations coming along”. They have been lecturers at many worldwide institutions including École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and Academia di Architettura di Mendrisio.
In 1978, they established Grafton Architects, originally with three other people, but ended up staying alone in the firm. The practice named after the street of their original office has an extensive portfolio with significant cultural and academic projects like the Urban Institute of Ireland, University College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland 2002); Solstice Arts Centre (Navan, Ireland 2007); Loreto Community School (Milford, Ireland 2006); and Medical School, University of Limerick (Limerick, Ireland 2012).
Starting their architectural awakening in their early childhood years, McNamara recalls her first discovery, an 18th-century house on the main street of the city of Limerick, where space and light aroused her senses. Farrell on the other hand, was fascinated by her hometown Tullamore, Co.Offaly, especially by its natural landscape, where she felt “close to nature”.
Far from their projects in their native Ireland, their first international commission, the Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan (Milan, Italy 2008), was awarded the World Building of the Year at the 2008 inaugural World Architectural Festival in Barcelona. Later on, in 2015, the challenging University Campus UTEC Lima (Lima, Peru 2015) was granted the inaugural RIBA International Prize 2016 by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).
In a constant dialogue with the surroundings, the architects explain that they are in constant search for “an architecture that deals with overlap that heightens your relationship to one another”. In fact, their recently completed Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, School of Economics (Toulouse, France 2019) is a metaphorical reinterpretation of a city filled with bridges, walls, promenades and stone towers.
Equal counterparts, as the Pritzker announced, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara’s work has always revolved around human beings. Actually, their sense of scale and proportion helped them generate intimate spaces within relatively harsh environments. On that note, McNamara affirms that “architecture is a framework for human life. It anchors us and connects us to the world in a way which possibly no other space-making discipline can”.
Fellows of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and International Honorary Fellows of RIBA, Farrell, and McNamara have previously held the Kenzo Tange Chair at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (2010) and the Louis Kahn chair at Yale University (2011). Recipients of the 2012 Biennale di Venezia Silver Lion Award for the exhibition, Architecture as New Geography, the architects were appointed later on in 2018 as co-curators for the 16th International Architecture Exhibition with the theme FREESPACE. In 2019, they were awarded the RIAI James Gandon Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture by the RIAI and the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2020.
Finally, regarding their current on-going work, among other projects, there are the Marshall Building in the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Oxford Street Department Store, both in London. Their interventions in Dublin comprise the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, City Library; the Head Offices for Electricity Supply Board; the Vicar St Hotel; the Booterstown Recreational Building, Interpretive Centre and Coastal Meadow and Dublin 7 Educate Together School.
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara have practiced architecture together for forty years in a way that clearly reflects the objectives of the Pritzker Prize: to recognize the art of architecture and consistent service to humanity as evidenced through a body of built work.
Co-founding their professional practice, called Grafton Architects, in Dublin, Ireland in 1978, they have consistently and unhesitatingly pursued the highest quality of architecture for the specific location in which it was to be built, the functions it would house and especially for the people who would inhabit and use their buildings and spaces. They have an oeuvre that includes numerous educational buildings, housing and cultural and civic institutions. Pioneers in a field that has traditionally been and still is a male-dominated profession, they are also beacons to others as they forge their exemplary professional path.
Many of their buildings are located in their home country of Ireland, but through competitions, they have won major commissions for other places around the world, such as Italy, France and Peru. With a profound understanding of place gained through their research, keen powers of observation, open and ever curious explorations and deep respect for culture and context, Farrell and McNamara are able to make their buildings respond to a setting and city most appropriately, while still being fresh and modern. This deep understanding of “spirit of place” means that their works enhance and improve the local community. Their buildings are “good neighbors” that seek to make a contribution beyond the boundaries of the building and to make a city work better. Their North King Street Housing in Dublin (2000) is one example of this: it creates an inner courtyard and a welcome respite from the adjacent busy streets.
Their approach to architecture is always honest, revealing an understanding of the processes of design and construction from large scale structures to the smallest details. It is often in these details, especially in buildings with modest budgets, where a big impact can be felt. For example, the Urban Institute of Ireland (Dublin, 2002) employs what the architects call a “crafted skin” to create a visually interesting building through changes in materials responding to openings, folds, needs for shade and other concerns. At the same time, it employs common sense, good-practice environmental control methodologies for an efficient, sustainable building. On a particularly sensitive site in Dublin, the masterful Offices for the Department of Finance (2009) attests to their knowledge and care in the selection of materials and construction techniques with a carefully handcrafted bronze railing and gate and sanded limestone on the facades.
The architects are skilled and successful working at many scales—from large institutional buildings to a house of only a little more than 100 square meters. Without grand or frivolous gestures, they have managed to create buildings that are monumental institutional presences when appropriate, but even so they are zoned and detailed in such a way as to produce more intimate spaces that create community within. In their large buildings such as the University Campus UTEC (2015) in Lima, Peru or the School of Economics Building (2008) at Universita Luigi Bocconi, they have achieved a human scale through the composition of spaces and volumes of different sizes. The dialogues they create between buildings and surroundings demonstrate a new appreciation of both their works and place.
A constant in their approach, the architects have an understanding of how to design complex sections of buildings in such a way that views connect deep interior spaces with the larger exterior realm and allow natural light to penetrate and animate spaces deep inside a building. Often light streams from skylights or upper story windows throughout the interiors of their buildings, providing warmth and visual interest, helping the inhabitants easily orient themselves in the spaces, and providing the ever necessary connection to the exterior.
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.
Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury Members 2020:
- 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, New York.
- Deborah Berke: Architect and Educator. New York, 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.
- Martha Thorne: (Executive Director). Dean, IE School of Architecture & Design. Madrid, Spain.