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Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara named 2020 Pritzker laureates

A Dublin win

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara named 2020 Pritzker laureates

Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell pictured at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. (Andrea Avezzu/Venice Biennale.)

Irish architects and educators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, perhaps best known internationally as cocurators of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, have been named the 2020 recipients of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

This is the first time since 2010 that a duo has been awarded architecture’s most prestigious honor—Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Tokyo-based SANAA were named as Pritzker co-recipients that year. A trio, the cofounders of Spain’s RCR Arquitectes, won in 2017. It’s also the first time that an Ireland-based architect—or, in this case, architects—has won the Pritzker Prize. Although the late Kevin Roche, who won the prize in 1982, was born in Dublin, he based his practice in Connecticut and was an American citizen at the time of his win.

Farrell and McNamara are the fourth and fifth female architects to be named Pritzker laureates, joining Zaha Hadid, Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, and Carme Pigem of RCR Arquitectes.

an academic building in ireland
The School of Medicine at the University of Limerick, designed by Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects. (Dennis Gilbert/Courtesy Pritzker Architecture Prize)

“For their integrity in their approach to both their buildings,” reads a portion of the 2020 Jury Citation, “as well as the way they conduct their practice, their belief in collaboration, their generosity towards their colleagues, especially as evidenced in such events as the 2018 Venice Biennale, their unceasing commitment to excellence in architecture, their responsible attitude toward the environment, their ability to be cosmopolitan while embracing the uniqueness of each place in which they work, for all these reasons and more, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are awarded the 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize.”

“They have tried, with considerable success, to help us all overcome what is likely to evermore become a serious human problem,” added Jury Chair Justice Stephen Breyer. “Namely, how do we build housing and workplaces in a world with over half of its population dwelling in urban environments, and many of them who cannot afford luxury.”

Both graduates of University College Dublin, Farrell and McNamara established the Dublin-based practice Grafton Architects—named after the street the firm’s original office was located on in order to emphasize a sense of place, not the people behind it—in 1978. Together the team have received numerous accolades and architecture awards prior to the Pritzker, including the Jane Drew Prize (2015), the inaugural RIBA International Prize (2016), and the RIBA Royal Gold Medal (2020) among others for their considerate and human-scaled work that’s bold yet perceptive, physically imposing yet intimate, and effortlessly interacts with the surrounding landscape, be it the lush Irish countryside or a dense city center.

Universidad de Ingeniería and Tecnologia (UTEC) in Lima, Peru, an exposed tangle of concrete beams
Grafton Architects’ Universidad de Ingeniería and Tecnologia (UTEC) in Lima, Peru. The project won the RIBA International Prize in 2016. (Iwan Baan/Courtesy Pritzker Architecture Prize)

“Farrell and McNamara create spaces that are at once respectful and new, honoring history while demonstrating a mastery of the urban environment and craft of construction,” reads a press statement announcing the win. “Balancing strength and delicacy, and upholding a reverence of site-specific contexts, their academic, civic and cultural institutions, as well as housing developments, result in modern and impactful works that never repeat or imitate, but are decidedly of their own architectural voice.”

In 2008, Farrell and McNamara’s School of Economics building at at the Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan was named World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona. Acclaimed projects in Farrell and McNamara’s native Ireland include the Solstice Arts Centre in County Meath (2006), the Loreto Community School in County Donegal (2006), and the University of Limerick Medical School (2012). Also of note is Dublin’s North King Street Housing, an 82-unit residential complex completed in 2000 that brought a “calm modesty” to a dense historic warehouse district by eschewing loud external design features.

Outside of Milan and Ireland, where Farrell and McNamara have also designed a number of private homes, Grafton Architects has also completed buildings in France, the United Kingdom, and Peru.

a streetcar university building in Milan
The School of  Economics building, aka the Grafton Building, at Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan. (Federico Brunetti/Courtesy Pritzker Architecture Prize)

Farrell and McNamara’s theme for the 2018 Venice Biennale was Freespace, a concept that explored “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself,” in the architects’ own words. “The exhibition invites emotional and intellectual engagement of the many who come to the Biennale in order to understand architecture more fully, to stimulate discussion on core architectural values and to celebrate architecture’s proven and enduring contribution to humanity.”

In addition to being bestowed with numerous awards that now includes the coveted Pritzker Prize, Farrell and McNamara have lectured on architecture and the built environment at venues across the globe. They’ve also held teaching positions at a number of universities including Yale University, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Accademia d’Archittettura in Mendrisio, Switzerland, and at their alma mater, the School of Architecture at University College Dublin, where they were named adjunct professors in 2015. Both are elected members, and the first architects to be admitted, of esteemed Irish arts organization Aosdána.

“Within the ethos of a practice such as ours,” said McNamara in a statement, “we have so often struggled to find space for the implementation of such values as humanism, craft, generosity, and cultural connection with each place and context within which we work. It is therefore extremely gratifying that this recognition is bestowed upon us and our practice and upon the body of work we have managed to produce over a long number of years. It is also a wonderful recognition of the ambition and vision of the clients who commissioned us and enabled us to bring our buildings to fruition.”