Irish couple awarded prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal

Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey have been added to distinguished list of winners

Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey received texts, emails and tweets over the last few weeks as their names were carefully carved on to the marble wall in the lobby of the Royal Institute of British Architects, near Regent's Park.

Today, the work is complete, placing their names in a distinguished lineage of architects including Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry who have been awarded RIBA's Gold Medal Prize – a decision ratified by Queen Elizabeth II.

Last night, the queen attended a London dinner honouring the Dublin couple – the end of nearly two days of engagements, including a lecture at RIBA’s Portland Place headquarters to nearly 500 people.

“Normally, architects get prizes for projects when they enter them into a competition. This is the only one where nobody applies. The first thing you know about it is when they ring up,” said Tuomey yesterday in a London taxi, as he and O’Donnell raced to the next event.


The call came last summer, under strict conditions of secrecy and subject to later ratification by the queen – a precaution taken ever since John Ruskin refused it after an emissary called to the Italian church he was renovating at the time.

Modestly, Tuomey told The Irish Times: "We looked at those names on the wall when we came in there when we were students, never thinking that one day ours would be there, too. We have to live up to it now." However, the couple's legacy is already distinguished: the Glucksman Gallery in University College Cork, the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and the more recent students' centre at the London School of Economics.

In all, they have been nominated five times – itself a record – for the Stirling Prize, another competition run by RIBA which seeks to honour the best new building erected in the United Kingdom or Ireland.

Currently, the architects are involved in projects in Hungary and in the United States, plus some teaching there, along with continuing to teach in the school of architecture at University College Dublin.

Urging more flexibility, O’Donnell said younger architects’ careers are being hindered by project management rules that demand that architects have completed three buildings of a certain type over the past five years before they can win a contract for another.

Following the boom and crash, Ireland has the chance to do things better, to build sustainable, mixed communities that let all generations live together: “City centres shouldn’t just be about 20 year olds,” said O’Donnell.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times