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Architects - They’re not just for the rich

For Yvonne Farrell and Shelly McNamara of Grafton Architects, good design is about making a community

Shelly McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, of Grafton Architects, at their office in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Cities. Love them or hate them, we’re pretty much stuck with them: more than half of the people on our planet already live in urbanised areas, and that figure is set to rise steeply over the coming decades. And just as cities change, so do people, lifestyles and living standards. So it’s a good time to look at how cities are being built, at innovative design ideas, and at what works - and what doesn’t.

That’s the idea behind the snappily-titled New Now Next. Curated by the Irish Architecture Foundation and sponsored by Arup, this lecture series begins on Tuesday (September 20th) with a talk by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, who head up Irealand’s most admired architectural firm, Grafton Architects.

Since they founded their practice in 1978, Farrell and McNamara have worked in cities as diverse as Lima and Toulouse. They have won a fistful of international awards, including World Building of the Year 2008 for the Luigi Bocconi university in Milan. But they are firmly grounded in - and passionately connected to - Dublin’s city centre.

“Chaos,” McNamara smiles, as we settle around a table in their busy offices above College Green. Light streams into the room through two enormous windows, as does the chatter and bustle of the street below. “You have arrived into the midst of chaos.” As she speaks she is clearing the table, every inch of which is covered with exquisitely-executed drawings for the building Grafton Architects is currently working on - a new political science facility at the Holborn campus of the London School of Economics.

Though they often give talks as a duo, it’s generally to other architects - so they are looking forward to engaging with a general audience. “It’s very important,” says McNamara. “Because people think of architecture as being for the rich, and nothing to do with them. And that’s a pity.”

The title of their talk, The Physics of Culture, is drawn from the work of Alexander Von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer who put Latin America on the scientific map in the 19th century. Humboldt’s philosophy of harmony within diversity offers a metaphor, Farrell believes, for the position of architecture within society. “Architecture is a cross between a business and an art form,” she says. “It’s very factual, and it’s also very physical. Things have to work. They have to do their job.

“But there’s another component to it. Within the incredible levels of cost in the building industry, and the requirements of the client, and the legislation of various kinds, the struggle of humanity to make a piece of architecture is almost like making a new piece of geography.”

“You make something that’s appropriate to the place that you’re in,” McNamara adds. This has always been central to Grafton Architects. approach, whether they’re designing a government building on a busy street or a primary school in a rural area. “Sometimes the client, or the place, or the occasion, needs celebration or statement,” she says. “But very often the task of architecture is to repair something that’s been broken - like a street, or a lane, or a piece of countryside. It’s about repairing or stitching things as well as making new things.”

The scale of a building is, obviously, one of the most basic considerations. “When is a building too long, or too high?” asks Farrell. “Whether our project is 22 metres or 220 metres, we pace it against something that we know. We know the front gate into Trinity is 1060 millimetres. When you know that, you can say ‘that’s enough to let the outside of a city into the inside of a city’.”

Context is also crucial. “We’re very interested in that moment where you step from outside to inside,” McNamara says. Their University of Engineering and Technology building in Lima, Peru, sits between a mature residential area and a huge motorway: so they created a cliff-like wall on one side, while the other descends in a series of gently sloping terraces and gardens. This stunning building has been nominated for the Design Museum in London’s Design of the Year award, to be announced in November - but for Farrell, the most import aspect of Utec was that it should be a place where students feel comfortable and welcome: “a scaffolding for life”.

“We should look at the word design,” says McNamara, “because it tends to be about how to make things as chic or as smart as possible. For us, design is much much more basic than that. It’s about how you make community. The most difficult thing in the world is to make something new which engenders a sense of community.”

Farrell nods in agreement. “We’re in a city where the Vikings came - and the Viking boat is a design phenomenon,” she says. “It could go on shallow water and on the open sea. Its design was integral to its seaworthiness. Real design is not about a layer added on to something. It’s about the integrity of the thing. A good bench, a lovely park wth dappled light through trees, is as much good design as a lovely teapot.

“I think sometimes people feel excluded because they can’t afford X or they can’t afford Y. I don’t think it has anything to do with that. And I think that the responsibility of our profession is to make as much free gift to the citizen as we can. Of course we have to listen to clients and to the constraints of legislators. But we also have to think about the unspoken wishes of strangers - the people who, in 200 years, will lean against a pillar or run their hand along a windowsill.”

*New Now Next with Grafton Architects is at the Royal Irish Academy on September 20th at 6.30 pm. Admission is free but booking essential: http://nnn-grafton.eventbrite.ie In November the speaker will be Stockholm City Architect Karolina Keyzer and in spring 2017, Amale Andraos of WORKac, the American Institute of Architects NY Firm of the Year.

On the housing crisis

The housing crisis is “the most depressing thing about Ireland at the moment”, says Shelly McNamara. “But there’s also the practical question of, ‘How do you build good housing?’ How do you release the talent that’s there, to do it?”

Farrell: “And over-reaction at this point could make for problems down the road. You need to think about things, and what the outcome might be. People are keen to make beautiful things. Many people are putting their energy into making beautiful, beautiful modifications of suburban houses – imagine all that talent, all that care, being put into the city.”

McNamara: “In Zurich, housing is one-third social, one-third co-operative and one-third private, and it’s extremely difficult to buy a place if you’re not Swiss. Now, you can say there are problems around that. But imagine having a policy like that: this housing crisis would never have happened. The concept of speculation in private housing is also a real problem in the long term. There are countries where that is just not possible, so the housing market is much more stable.”

Farrell: “In Rotterdam, they give houses to young people at a very minimal amount of money in order for them to go into an area and do it up. I remember years ago, Shelley had the idea that we’d get a warehouse and bring it up to a certain standard – make it safe and service it – and that people would go in with very little money and then in time we’d build it up. But we couldn’t get seeding funding from the bank.”

McNamara: “And that’s still the case. Unless you’re very rich you can’t buy an unfinished space. You either have to have the money, so you don’t need the bank, or you can’t do it. So that excludes a whole range of possibilities. One of the frustrating things about being an architect is that you know that architecture can’t solve certain problems. We can’t solve the housing problem, no matter how good we are as designers. It is an interdisciplinary thing, a question of economics and a whole range of complex inter-relationships. There are a lot of good ideas around. It’s a matter of creating the mechanism to bring them all together.”