Grafton Architects, the Dublin practice led by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, has been named as the recipient of the 2020 RIBA gold medal, the UK’s highest honour for architecture. It marks just the second time in the award’s 172-year history that the prize has been given to a women-led firm, following Zaha Hadid’s win in 2016.
It says a lot about the duo that their practice is named not after themselves, but the street in which they set up their office. For Grafton, place is more important than personality, and making good buildings a higher priority than theory, rhetoric or appearing in magazines.
If Farrell and McNamara don’t fit the usual celebrity architect mould, their buildings also feel of another era. They are interested in weight, mass, and the play of light on hefty volumes of concrete and stone. They sculpt spaces from great mineral slabs and soaring buttresses, carving out volumes in a manner reminiscent of heroic brutalist buildings of the postwar era. Their structures sometimes have an archaic, primitive quality, providing robust armatures for any number of different uses that might occur within their walls over the coming centuries that they look designed to endure. In a world of lightweight frames and clip-on cladding systems, this is solid architecture that is built to last.
Grafton’s medal win follows the award of the inaugural RIBA international prize in 2016 for the “best new building in the world”, which went to their jaw-dropping building for the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) in Lima, Peru. Standing above a motorway like a chunk of a stadium, the muscular concrete structure provides laboratories and classrooms in a vertiginous stack of terraces, connected by open walkways and meandering social spaces, feeling like a true extension of the city, cleft from the hillside.