A celebratory pint of Guinness would seem in order today, as Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara were named the 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize laureates this morning. Partners in Dublin-based Grafton Architects since 1978, the pair is having a particularly good year, as their office was presented with the 2020 RIBA Royal Gold Medal just last month. Notably, the Pritzker honors Farrell and McNamara individually, rather than the practice, and they are the second and third natives of Ireland to be so honored—and the first, Kevin Roche, was a U.S. citizen when he was named the fourth laureate in 1982.
Farrell and McNamara graduated from University College Dublin in 1974, where they have both taught regularly since, in addition to undertaking additional academic appointments and giving lectures across the globe. The pair curated the most recent Venice Architecture Biennale exhibition in 2018, where they cut the usual number of exhibitors to showcase more of the existing structures within the context of “Freespace,” which their curatorial statement referred to as “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture's agenda.”
Farrell and McNamara’s most notable structures are a series of university buildings, clustered initially in Ireland, but distributed increasingly globally since 2008. A common thread connecting each project is the active development of complex sections that open different programmatic functions to light, air, and opportunities to encourage community within an individual structure.
The strikingly bold stone-clad volumes of their School of Economics at Milan’s Università Luigi Bocconi garnered the World Architecture Festival’s World Building of the Year shortly after its completion in 2008. The complex is designed as a market hall that “acts as a filter between the city and the university,” according to Grafton Architects’ website. The underside of the structure’s large auditorium cantilevers over an outdoor plaza, with gathering spaces on the lower level that extend beneath the sidewalk in a multilevel spatial sequence that is readily understandable to the public. A series of parallel volumes containing research space float above the street and auditorium, where they access ample natural daylight that is filtered between them to the lower public floors.
In Peru, the architects created a complex concrete structural frame for Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) in Lima (2015) that mimics the city’s nearby ocean-facing cliffs. The giant order of the north façade addresses the scale of an adjacent highway within a ravine while its southern side is more intricately and delicately scaled to transition to the scale of a residential neighborhood. Taking advantage of the area’s mild climate, the structure’s sectional development is an interplay between exterior public spaces and gardens and discrete boxes that contain the required programmatic functions.
Their Toulouse School of Economics (2019) at the Université Toulouse 1 Capitole in France features three quirky brick-clad wings connected by bridges that allude to the city’s complex infrastructure, which itself navigates a network of canals and the Garonne River.
The practice’s solutions are bold, sculptural forms that are reminiscent of high Midcentury Modernism, but are tempered by intricate—and intimate—spaces that bridge public and private functions, often influenced by long-established patterns of settlement within existing communities. The stark forms might recall Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer, but Farrell and McNamara’s clear interest in developing architecture’s richness through sectional means seems related more to that of Paul Rudolph.
The notion of “the provincial” has long been a source of architectural tension. Andrea Palladio might have been deeply inspired by Rome, but maintaining his practice in the small city of Vicenza allowed him to create most of his sublime works outside of the capital. Likewise, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright eschewed the allure of more cosmopolitan centers to forge an authentic American architecture in the Midwest. Born and raised in Ireland, and having been educated in and practiced in the same city for almost half a century, has allowed Farrell and McNamara to refine their vision somewhat (although not completely) out of the spotlight. Now seemingly at the height of their creative abilities, and through the Pritzker recognition sure to become even more sought after for high-profile commissions, how will their work continue to evolve?
In the eyes of the Pritzker jury, it will continue to develop with a strong connection to the local community for each project—wherever that community may be: "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," reads the jury citation, in part. "This deep understanding of “spirit of place” means that their works enhance and improve the local community."
With the announcement today, Farrell and McNamara join a storied list of recipients of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which includes, most recently, Arata Isozaki, Hon. FAIA (2019); Balkrishna Doshi, Hon. FAIA (2018); and Rafael Aranda, Hon. FAIA, Carme Pigem, Hon. FAIA, and Ramon Vilalta, Hon. FAIA (2017). The 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize jury was chaired by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and included Columbia University architectural historian Barry Bergdoll; dean of the Yale School of Architecture Deborah Berke, FAIA; Brazilian ambassador to Japan André Aranha Corrêa do Lago; 2010 laureate Kazuyo Sejima ; Spanish architect Benedetta Tagliabue; 2012 laureate Wang Shu; and executive director Martha Thorne.
The award will be conferred at a ceremony later this year at a site that has yet to be announced.