Irish architects win RIBA gold medal, UK’s top award

Grafton Architects honoured for significant contribution to advancement of architecture

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

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

 

Dublin-based Grafton Architects have been named as the recipient of the Royal Gold Medal awarded annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects in recognition of their significant lifetime contribution to the advancement of architecture.

Approved personally by Queen Elizabeth II, the medal will be presented to Grafton’s founders, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, at a special ceremony in London next year. It is only the fourth time in a century or more for the award to go Ireland.

Previous Irish recipients of the Royal Gold Medal were Dundalk-born structural engineer Peter Rice, who was involved in designing the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, as well as Michael Scott and O’Donnell+Tuomey Architects.

As the RIBA noted, Farrell and McNamara co-founded Grafton Architects in 1978 and work alongside directors Gerard Carty and Philippe O’Sullivan in a “people-centred practice” that has achieved “global recognition [for an] impressive portfolio of work”.

In 2013, Grafton’s Medical School at the University of Limerick was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize. Three years later, they won the inaugural RIBA International Prize for their bold new “vertical campus” at UTEC in Lima, Peru.

Grafton Architects’ UTEC University, Lima, Peru, which won the inaugural RIBA International Prize. Photograph: Grafton Architects/Iwan Baan
Grafton Architects’ UTEC University, Lima, Peru, which won the inaugural RIBA International Prize. Photograph: Grafton Architects/Iwan Baan

The practice’s name was inspired by their original office on Grafton Street in central Dublin, a city that has influenced their approach to architecture and that they have helped to shape – notably through their involvement in the 1991 Temple Bar Architectural Framework Plan.

Grafton Architects’ directors have taught and lectured at some of the world’s most famous universities, and curated exhibitions and shown their own work globally. In 2018, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara curated the Venice Architecture Biennale, with the theme of “Freespace”.

On hearing the news, they said: “For us, architecture is an optimistic profession, with the opportunity to anticipate future realities . . . It translates people’s needs and dreams into built form, into the silent language of space. We share this honour with all our clients, design teams, contractors and colleagues.”

An illustration of the interior of Grafton Architects’ proposed Dublin library. Illustration: Grafton Architects
An illustration of the interior of Grafton Architects’ proposed Dublin library. Illustration: Grafton Architects

RIBA president Alan Jones said: “The scale and scope of Grafton Architects’ influence is extraordinary. Their extensive talent and generosity of spirit are an inspiration, not only to me and my fellow architects but to all those who have had the pleasure of engaging directly with them and their work.

“Grafton Architects are impressive role models. Their work, philosophy and ambition are of profound importance, not just in their home country and the UK, but across the globe. They show us all how architecture, practiced humbly and humanely, can make the world a better place. I am delighted that Grafton Architects will receive the 2020 Royal Gold Medal.”

Ms Farrell and Ms McNamara join a who’s who of world architecture: previous recipients include such luminaries as Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, the late Zaha Hadid, Swiss architects Peter Zumthor and Herzog & de Meuron, Louvre Pyramid designer IM Pei, Japanese architect Toyo Ito, Portugal’s Álvaro Siza Vieira, Spain’s Rafael Moneo, French architect Jean Nouvel and American architect Frank Gehry and Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer.

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