Pritzker for Grafton


5 March 2020

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, co-founders and principals of the Dublin-based Grafton Architects, have been awarded the Pritzker Prize, contemporary architecture’s most esteemed piece of silverware. 

The selection is uncontroversial. Farrell and McNamara are well-liked in the industry, and well-respected both as practitioners and professors. Their win follows two other notable honours: the directorship of a generally acclaimed edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018, and the RIBA Gold Medal (the BAFTA to the Pritzker’s Academy Award) last December.

Established in 1978, the first three decades of Grafton’s practice were spent on a series of public realm, housing and school projects in Ireland. It was their first building on continental Europe, the Università Luigi Bocconi in Milan (2008) – a volumetric concrete mass that both shoulders and slips into the surrounding cityscape – that announced them to a wider audience.

Since then, they have produced a steady drip of acclaimed academic structures, including a medical school at the University of Limerick (2012) and the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología, Lima (2015), a hillside hulk whose monolithic back disguises a labyrinthine network of walkways and staircases. Of late this drip has increased to a flow, with projects for universities in Toulouse, Paris and Kingston all completed last year, and the Marshall Institute at London’s LSE slated to open in 2021. 

This sustained focus on higher education buildings has given Farrell and McNamara ample ground to develop their values, which hinge on what the Pritzker jury referred to as “spirit of place.” This implies a sensitivity to a building’s location and the community that surrounds it, as well as the creation of places that serve themselves to incubate communities. “Architecture,” said McNamara on receiving the prize, “is a framework for human life. It anchors us and connects us to the world.” 

While the Grafton duo might be an uncontentious choice, they do represent a digression from several of Pritzker’s norms. Farrell and McNamara are not the first Irish-born architects to be awarded – Kevin Roche, doyen of Midwestern corporate headquarter, beat them to it in 1982 – but they are the first to have spent a substantial period of their career working in Ireland. This continues a diversification of a prize that has disproportionally awarded figures from a handful of prominent, populous nations, including the US (8 wins), Japan (8) and the UK (4).
Grafton’s nomination might be an an indication of the way the discipline has become ever more globally-disseminated, as mid-sized practices from regions once considered marginal architectural innovators become able to work on projects internationally.

More anomalous is Farrell and McNamara’s gender: they are only the fourth and fifth women to win, and the first since Zaha Hadid in 2004 not to share the honour with one or more men. This is obviously welcome, though the Pritzker still has much to make up for: five women out of 48 alumni remains a shamefully low proportion. The 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale was the stage for a flash mob organised by Odile Decq, Fashid Moussavi and Pritzker executive director Martha Thorne protesting the architecture industry’s endemic gender inequality, so Grafton’s naming a year and a half later feels a little like an overdue start to fulfilling that protest’s vital demands.

The Pritzker is playing catch-up in more ways than one. Grafton was established a mere year after Renzo Piano (Pritzker awardee 1998) and Richard Rogers (awardee 2007) kicked off the high-tech tendency with their Centre Pompidou, an inside-out structural masterpiece plonked incongruously into the historic centre of Paris. This in turn inaugurated the era of starchitecture, where a coterie of almost entirely white, almost entirely male architects sprinkled the globe with “icon buildings,” often paying little heed to context.

Before the 2010s, the Pritzker seemed in a hurry to reward each of these already ubiquitous names. Until now at least, Farrell and McNamara have kept a relatively low-key public profile, to the point of naming their studio after the Dublin high street where they had their first office, an uncommon move in a sector where firms tend to be named for at least the initials of their leading partners. This anonymity speaks to a studio that values collaboration over personal signature.

They also differ from a more recent suite of winners, including Alejandro Aravena in 2016, RCR Arquitectes in 2017 and B. V. Doshi in 2018, whose varied work sits in the constellation of critical regionalism, bringing elements of the vernacular traditions of their native contexts into the present day. Although Grafton’s buildings have some consistent qualities – a prominent use of concrete, a meticulous consideration of a building’s interchanges and shared spaces – they could fairly be said to have less of a stylistic signature than either the starchitects or the regionalists. Enmeshed in the international cycle of competitions, they have been adept in crafting distinctive structures that match a diverse series of surroundings. Farrell and McNamara’s victory is a triumph for a middle way.

Words Joe Lloyd.

The University Campus of UTEC in Lima, completed in 2015, was awarded the inaugural RIBA International Prize in 2016. IMAGE Iwan Baan.
The University Campus of UTEC in Lima. IMAGE Iwan Baan.
UTEC in Lima. IMAGE Iwan Baan.
Urban Institute of Ireland. IMAGE Ros Kavanagh.
Università Luigi Bocconi, completed in 2008. IMAGE Federico Brunetti.
Università Luigi Bocconi. IMAGE Alexandre Soria.
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who co-founded Grafton Architects in 1978. IMAGE Alice Clancy.