When it comes to the most acclaimed international prizes, Ireland is a small country that punches well above its weight. On Tuesday, Dublin’s Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara added to that luster when they were awarded the 2020 Pritzker Prize, generally regarded as architecture’s Nobel.
Farrell and McNamara — who have been partners in Grafton Architects since 1978 — are the first Irish architects so honored.
“Architecture could be described as one of the most complex and important cultural activities on the planet,” Farrell told the Pritzker jurors, who this year were chaired by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
”To be an architect is an enormous privilege,” she added.
In a year in which the inclusion of women has emerged as a major issue in the arts, the partners are the fourth and fifth women to be awarded the prize. The late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid was the first woman among the 48 laureates, winning the prize in 2002.
The Pritzker jurors cited Farrell and McNamara — who are best known for their striking and monumental academic buildings from Italy to Peru — for creating “spaces that are at once respectful and new, honoring history while demonstrating a mastery of the urban environment and craft of construction. 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.”
Though their decades of work have been on the architectural cognoscenti’s radar for years, Farrell and McNamara first came to major international attention in 2008, when they won the inaugural World Building of the Year award for their Bocconi University faculty building in Milan.
All of their work is marked by a sensitivity to the site and environment with a premium placed on space, light and fresh air. In Ireland, they’re known for their Navan Solstice Arts Center, with a unique theater design that eliminates the separation between performers and their audience.
“Architecture is a framework for human life,’ McNamara said Tuesday. “It anchors and connects us to the world in a way which possible no other space-making discipline can.”
Last year, the Pritzker Prize was awarded to “emperor of Japanese Architecture” Arata Isozaki, whose work includes the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Luxury condominium developers across the U.S. have been eager to work with honorees, as many believe the prize can add prestige – and price premiums – to their projects. Past winners who’ve designed luxury projects include Alvaro Siza , Hadid and Richard Meier.