OPINION

From the Liffey to the Lagoon

Venice

18 January 2017

The Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who have worked together as Grafton Architects since 1977, are to curate the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale.

Opening in May 2018, Grafton’s biennale title has yet to be confirmed, although the Biennale’s president Paolo Baratta has specified that the theme will be “the quality of the public and private space, of urban space, of the territory and of the landscape as the main ends of architecture.” Framed as a continuation of Alejandro Aravena's exploration of architecture as an instrument of social betterment in 2016, Grafton’s biennale has the potential to be a deepening of its predecessor: a focused dissertation to last year's wide-ranging introductory course.

Although Grafton has been garlanded - winning the World Building of the Year Prize in 2008 for Milan’s Universita Luigi Bocconi, the Jane Drew Prize in 2015, and last year the inaugural RIBA International Prize for the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) - its progress within architecture has been patient. Its 25-person practice has completed fewer buildings than it now has employees. Yet issues of space have been paramount in their work since Farrell and McNamara's early projects together, not least the re-organising of Temple Bar Square in Dublin, worked on as members of Group 91 Architects from 1991 to 1996.

In more recent years, McNamara and Farrell have become respected for their educational buildings: a typology in which questions of the public and private, and the use of space, are especially pertinent. Universita Luigi Bocconi was the first of these commissions. A structural wonder that sheaves pale glass in gnomic concrete blocks, the university nevertheless feels organically integrated into the cityscape: dazzle sheathed in temperance. Meanwhile, UTEC stretches this dichotomy between design and environs even further, with its labyrinthine, Borgesian structure curved to match the cliff-front it faces. Aided by conversations with the architect Paolo Mendes da Rocha, an exhibition showcasing UTEC's design won the Silver Lion at the 2012 Biennale.

Koolhaas' 2014 Biennale, Fundamentals was praised for its exploration of architectural history, but often swung towards the fruitlessly self-referential. Aravena's Reporting from the Front had an admirable agenda but sometimes struggled to fulfil its remit of providing tenable solutions to issues facing the world today. While pitched closer to Aravena’s iteration, Grafton’s remit may end up sitting somewhere in the middle of the two: encouraging social engaged projects, while still dealing in the sort of ideas – urban planning, suitability for landscape, interactions with public space – that architects face on a project-by-project basis.

In Farrell and McNamara’s favour, however, even more so than their predecessors, is their track record of integrating their work as educators alongside their practice. They have taught at University College Dublin since 1976, and shared posts at institutions including EPFL, Harvard and Yale. Farrell and McNamara are used to bringing order to the works of students and helping to transform ideas into sense. If they can bring this – along with the thoroughness and sophistication present in their built works – to the Arsenale, Grafton may well curate the most nuanced architecture Biennale in recent memory.