Irish duo driving design on a world stage: O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects

O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects are partners in life as well as by trade. This week they were awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, the UK’s highest architectural accolade

 Irish architects Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, at home in Rathmines, Dublin. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill

Irish architects Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, at home in Rathmines, Dublin. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey are having a moment: they have just been awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal – one of world architecture’s top prizes, they are on the Stirling Prize shortlist for the fifth time and tomorrow they are publishing a book of their work.

“O’Donnell and Tuomey’s work is always inventive – striking yet so well considered, particular to its place and brief, beautifully crafted – and ever developing,” says RIBA president Stephen Hodder.

As John Tuomey describes the tools of their trade: clutch pencils, rulers, Skizzen paper in the opening chapter of the book, along with a description of their studio, in a former school and handbag factory off Dublin’s Camden Row, you get a sense of how the couple hold the ground for designing well-considered, dignified buildings with élan.

The book is called Space for Architecture. “We didn’t want to write a monograph,” says John. “The internet and magazines are so comprehensive. Plans, sections and elevations are documented everywhere. It felt like a time to set out for ourselves what journey we have taken.”

“And to maybe be useful in describing the different strands that influence how we make the work,” says Sheila. “These aren’t simply the technical aspects of designing a building; there are so many things we feel are integral to the way we work. It was an opportunity to tease those out.

“Why do certain things seem important, that might not seem obviously important, like why do I pick up stones and shells and how do I think that’s a part of our work?”

Space for Architecture chronicles the journey of designs, the evolution from ideas to buildings, from testing out in some projects to expansion in others.

The couple’s own home in Rathmines has been a lab for 21 years. John is standing in a deep doorway between the original house and an extension, touching its edges. “We talk to each other a lot about thresholds,” he says. “How to get over the threshold and how to make a threshold.”

The extension looks onto the garden through a glass wall sliced with strong strips of timber. And here it is again in the Sean O’Casey Community Centre in Dublin’s Docklands, and Cherry Orchard Primary School, both in the courtyards chapter.

Collaborating ideas

The couple wrote alternate chapters: there was a holiday in Greece in which John sat at a window and wrote while Sheila turned over ideas, with stones, on the beach. She hoped to write when they taught a semester in Harvard last year (bringing students to Dublin to come up with ideas for the Abbey Theatre) but the flights, every second week, and fast turnarounds left no gap.

They taught together in the 1980s, at UCD, where they still work, though not together for many years. And revisiting that in Harvard? “It was really nice,” they answer in unison.

Living and working together is part of what gives them the space in which to create, with studio time spilling into home life: “The space often is just in the conversation between ourselves,” says John.

Such talks start the building process and further conversations expand it: “Conversations between our buildings and the place they are in,” says Sheila, “and the conversations between people: the clients and students.” And in their work it often is students who use the building.

Sheila says John wrote his part of the book faster. John clarifies that he didn’t write faster, he finished sooner. Exact.

Their work is exact. And while designs and ideas can come quickly and serendipitously between them, they enjoy refining. “We like to make a strong start but what we really like is honing it,” says John.

He admits that, left to his own devices, the book would have ended up on a postcard.

London calling

That journey from idea to realisation, from one building evolving into another, is mapped in the design of their student centre for the London School of Economics (LSE). The Saw Swee Hock centre has roots in a house in Dalkey, whose client, returning from life in London, had picked up the phone to Sheila and John and let them at it. The result is extraordinary, like a hand with its palm as a living hub and fingers of accommodation clutching the site’s extremes.

“We went to the LSE site at the beginning of the competition,” says Sheila, “and both of us just said it’s going to be a brick.” Brick has been in many of their designs, from the Ranelagh School, and they say it fitted the London context.

The importance they place on context stops their buildings from shouting even though they have a very strong presence.

“I’m glad to hear you say that ,” says John. “We’re not just imagining it!”

The recognition of that is probably one reason why they’ve won the Royal Gold Medal and been up for the RIBA Stirling Prize in the UK so many times: the LSE building is their fifth shot at it (both John and Sheila have even done stints on the judging panel). Someone in the London architectural world told them that being on the shortlist five times was better than winning it because it shows form. “No. It’s. Not,” laughs Sheila.

It all comes together

In many ways the London project has seen aspects of their work and life come full circle – context, journey, welcoming: that addressing of surrounds with brick, while challenging them with its angles, and embracing the city by sucking the street into it and spilling onto the pavement.

The common spaces spiral upwards with nary a door interrupting the flow. “We made the stairs very wide and very varied with lots of landings and platforms,” says Sheila, “so people can stop and sit on the lower parts or look down from above.

“We are very interested in the idea that buildings have an explicit brief – the list of things that have to be accommodated – and an implicit brief; what else does it do? A lot of things students want to do can’t be put on a list. A lot of interaction isn’t programmed.

“So, with the circulation space, we were thinking: where does life happen? Maybe life happens in spaces in between . . . the kind of place in which you meet somebody and later say, that was the most important moment in my life.”

Sheila and John met on the stairs at a UCD disco. They knew each other from the course, but this was where they began their life together.

“Buildings rigidly dictate who goes where,” says John. “The buildings we’ve done from Glucksman and on have allowed more sympathetic occupation.”

In the Lyric theatre in Belfast, they took down the standard barrier of having the flytower between audience and actors. And, says Sheila, the encouraging of interaction had its roots in their first project; the film centre in Temple Bar. “We want buildings to be welcoming and open and for people not to feel intimidated.”

So the LSE building represents a full circle in life-changing meetings on stairs. And circling back to the time they worked in London, and worked with Jim Stirling, who died in 1992, and who the prize is named after.

“What is radical in the early buildings of Stirling,” says John, “is this feeling that you can take the elements of a building and break them apart from each other and make them more like themselves; like a pure version of themselves.”

The LSE student centre has 15 different functions (library, gym, etc) “crammed in one building”.

The builder’s blocks

“Stirling thinks parts of a building should display the way of life of their occupants,” says John. “He doesn’t want to cover it up and make it attempt to show a single view of society. He wants to show body parts and then make a body. It’s all about pulling it apart and putting it together. I think our building in LSE is about as far pulled apart and put together as we are able to do.

“It does feel like a circle,” he says. “It was a really important part of our life, the whole London thing. If there was one person I would like to show around the LSE, it is Jim Stirling.

“I wish I could wake him up and bring him round because I think that so much of what we have done in the student centre is based on what we learned from him. I’d like to give it to him.”

Space for Architecture – The work of O’Donnell and Tuomey is published by Artifice. The Stirling Prize will be announced on October 16th