"This recognition gives us a sense of being more empowered to continue doing what we are doing," one of the winners said

By Claudia Harmata
March 04, 2020 11:30 AM
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Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara
Credit: Courtesy of Alice Clancy

The coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize, seen as the Nobel of the architectural world, has been awarded to two women for the very first time.

Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Dublin, Ireland, have been named the 2020 winners. It is the first time that the prestigious honor has been given to two female architects in one year, though there have been previous female winners.

“When we win a prize, it is an extraordinary endorsement of the hard work that ourselves and our team have been involved in over the many years of practice,” Farrell said in a video released by the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

“It also endorses our position and our philosophy, let’s call it, in terms of what architecture is and how one should practice,” McNamara added. “Being given this recognition gives us a sense of being more empowered to continue doing what we are doing.”

The two women cofounded their firm, Grafton Architects, 42 years ago, after meeting during their collegiate years at the School of Architecture at University College Dublin in the mid-1970s.

Parnell Square Cultural Quarter, City Library
Credit: Courtesy of Grafton Architects

“Shelley is unbelievably tenacious. I would say fearless as well,” Farrell said of her colleague. “Shelley is an architect in every molecule of her existence. She will not let things be other than the very best.”

McNamara has only praise for Farrell as well. “Yvonne has an enormous sense of humanity and integrity and she has the talent to bring that right into the center of our work,” she said.

Throughout their years in the industry, the women and their firm have taken a special interest in creating buildings for schools and universities, making one of their first major designs in the 1990s when they created a building for Trinity College in Dublin. From there they went on to design houses, schools and even helped redesign Dublin’s Temple Bar Square.

The first building that the pair ever created outside of Ireland didn’t come until 2003, when their firm won an international competition to design the prestigious School of Economics at the University Luigi Bocconi in Milan. That building went on to be named World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in 2008, when it was finally completed, and established Grafton Architects as a leader in university buildings.

Town House Building, Kingston University
Credit: Courtesy of Ed Reeves

“We’re passionately interested in education,” McNamara said during a 2015 lecture at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. “The university should be a place where knowledge is tended to like a garden. And we’re the guardians of knowledge.”

A notable characteristic of the two architects is their commitment to place, and creating a structure that emulates where it is and the culture that surrounds it, Robert McCarter, an architecture professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told NPR.

“Their practice is grounded in the specifics of place,” he told the outlet. “Dublin and Ireland are very important. And they say their practice is committed to the cultural ethics of buildings, so it’s an ethics that’s all-encompassing of the culture in which they work.”

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Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, School of Economics
Credit: Courtesy of Dennis Gilbert

“Our name, Grafton Architects, comes from the street where we set up our first office, on Grafton Street,” McNamara explains in Pritzker video. “And we were a group of five architects, and we had this idea of making a collective practice, so we called ourselves after the street. So we are anchored in our own place and our own culture.”

The Pritzker Architecture Prize was first established in 1979. Only three other women have won in the past — Zaha Hadid in 2004, Kazuyo Sejima in 2010 (with Ryue Nishizawa) and Carme Pigem in 2017 (with Ramón Vilalta and Rafael Aranda).