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Critical mass

Grafton Architects’ expressive structures are now being heaped with honours. But, as Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara point out, they draw on a decades-long dialogue

Conversational  to-and-fro: Grafton Architects’ Yvonne Farrell, left, and  Shelley McNamara.
Conversational to-and-fro: Grafton Architects’ Yvonne Farrell, left, and Shelley McNamara. Credit: Alice Clancy

We’re jammed into a corner of a University College London student café, right by the Bartlett. Since no other space is available, we make our own next to a cash machine by moving a very light spare table and some incredibly heavy odd-shaped, doubtless architectural, wooden stools. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Dublin’s Grafton Architects settle right in with their cups of tea. They have taught architecture all their lives: they are used to such places. 

Farrell and McNamara have been meeting their clients in London. In an hour they’ll be lecturing but before that they want to have a quick look at the Peter Cook 80th birthday exhibition. They are exceptionally busy people, but there’s nothing remotely hurried about them or their conversation. Especially when it comes to discussing what kind of architecture it is that they do, exactly.

Style doesn’t really come into it, unless you regard their often (but by no means always) massive raw-concrete structures as brutalism. It’s more visceral, or perhaps geological, than that. ‘We are drawn to the work of Lasdun – at the Bocconi University in Milan we talked about the thing erupting out of the ground,‘ says McNamara. But that’s only one reference. They are equally drawn to the Alhambra – the way a great weight of masonry can be made to seem weightless. ‘Structure is dissolved by light,’ says Farrell.

They have been heaped with honours lately, receiving the inaugural RIBA International Prize last November for their Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) university in Lima, Peru – the Irish president and poet Michael Higgins has just visited it, they report – and being appointed this January to direct the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.

  • Interior of UTEC in Lima.
    Interior of UTEC in Lima. Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
  • UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia
    UTEC - Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia Credit: Iwan Baan
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There’s more. The day we meet, they have been awarded the Jefferson Foundation Medal for architecture (previous recipients including Mies, Pei, Gehry and Hadid). The citation cites their success ‘re-imagining a contemporary version of Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village’ as embodied in his University of Virginia. It refers to Bocconi and UTEC, of course. The work in this field continues in faculties now under way for the London School of Economics, Kingston University and the University of Toulouse. But when the phrase comes up, it’s a different kind of ‘academical village’ they have in mind – ideas developed in a collegiate atmosphere which can, as in Dublin in their early years, expand across a whole city.

Often cited as the Year Zero of a number of Irish practices, including Grafton and O’Donnell + Tuomey, is the formation of the Group 91 collective of young architects which – and this is still amazing – managed that year to convince the authorities to let them rescue the blighted Temple Bar district of Dublin. Rather than massive clearance for a new bus terminus as originally proposed, sensitive refurbishments, interventions and public spaces turned it into a new cultural quarter (even though it later became raucous and slippery with noisy drinking establishments – no fault of the architects).

The Irish relationship of town to country – with landscape and architecture being inseparable – was important

But, as Farrell and McNamara point out, this didn’t come from nowhere – there was a history to them before 1991 and it goes back to the time they and their colleagues spent at University College Dublin (UCD) in the early 1970s (they graduated in 1974). ‘There was a 20-year conversation,’ as Farrell puts it, which began with often English-sourced UCD teachers such as Ivor Smith, Ed Jones, Chris Cross and Mike Gold, and then continued through both practice and teaching. This was the milieu in which the new Irish architecture was formed. 

From this dispersed academical village, Grafton was set up as in 1978 as an optimistic five-person co-operative practice, the others being Shay Cleary, Tony Murphy and Frank Hall. The cast changed over time as people came and went, then came Group 91 and the Temple Bar work, and then independent practice resumed. Through their teachers and mentors, the pair had worked for London practices a little (‘There weren’t many people in Dublin we wanted to work for then,’ says McNamara) but saw their future back home. ‘There were fields to be ploughed,‘ as Farrell puts it, meaning that they felt that architecture in Ireland was in need of new impetus, following the waning of the original modernist generation and the necessary hard questioning of their urban approach. For both, the Irish relationship of town to country, the fact of landscape and architecture being inseparable, was important.

  • The Bocconi building – ‘erupting out of the ground’.
    The Bocconi building – ‘erupting out of the ground’.
  • Grafton’s new faculty for the LSE south of Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
    Grafton’s new faculty for the LSE south of Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
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It’s tempting to say that now is Grafton’s moment, but McNamara corrects this: there have been a series of ‘moments’ for the Grafton team – such as their first project at Trinity College Dublin, then one at UCD, which led onto Bocconi (‘that was big, and not many people had heard of us at that point’) and that in turn to UTEC in Lima. With their collective background, they are emphatic that their various honours are for all their Grafton colleagues, not for themselves as individuals. The Grafton Christmas card is always signed by everyone, and the practice is now 27 strong (having been as small as eight during the recession), with two other directors, Gerard Carty and Philippe O’Sullivan, who have grown up with the practice.

Internationally their star has been in the ascendant since 2002, when Grafton won the competition for Bocconi and exhibited it at the Venice Biennale of that year. This was a huge leap in scale. It opened in 2008 – it was, they say, an incredible inauguration day, as they stood there watching the public flood in. One old lady whose home overlooked the site was at first reluctant to go in, but eventually did. ‘The structure is immense and it embraces you,’ is the translation of what she said. That could be a handy summary of Grafton’s architecture, as is a phrase they also like to use, ‘a dialogue with gravity’, which comes (possibly – they laughingly argue about this) from a Japanese dance company they saw perform in Dublin which had a piece with that name.

  • Kingston University Town House
    Kingston University Town House
  • Kingston University Town House
    Kingston University Town House
  • Kingston University Town House
    Kingston University Town House
  • Lima comes to Kingston? A lighter precast assemblage for Kingston University’s Town House.
    Lima comes to Kingston? A lighter precast assemblage for Kingston University’s Town House.
  • University of Toulouse School of Economics
    University of Toulouse School of Economics
  • University of Toulouse School of Economics
    University of Toulouse School of Economics
  • University of Toulouse School of Economics
    University of Toulouse School of Economics
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Whatever, it is to do with poise. ‘I think it’s true to say that underneath the 22m cantilever of the Aula Magna, the Big Hall, in Bocconi, is one of the most important spaces for us to be in, because you feel something hovering, but it’s also weight suspended. You’re more alive – it’s some kind of pivotal moment,’ says Farrell. McNamara recalls Ruskin, and the idea of weight resting on a visibly active support. 

There’s a lot of this conversational to-and-fro, little challenges from one to the other, often accompanied by laughter, which you realise is the essence of this creative relationship, which began when they met at college decades ago and which continues unabated. Questioned about their approach to design, Farrell and McNamara happily admit that they often disagree and also – in the Stirling manner, as it happens – invite design ideas from the whole studio.  It’s not just a matter of weight and the pivotal moment. It’s also to do with the idea of solid surface meeting the ground, the fact that not everything in or around a building has to be on display all the time, that discovery can be delayed and directed. 

Farrell describes UTEC as ‘a carved mountain’ but they baulk at the idea that this is their default architectural technique, or that they are sculptors. Their Town House  building for Kingston University, they point out, is all about the assembly of precast components. Nor will they be trapped into defining themselves as either accretive Goths or perfect-object classicists – ‘the Kingston University Town House is Gothic, the University of Toulouse School of Economics is classical’, suggests McNamara. 

And so – after the promised lightning visit to the Peter Cook show – they’re off into the lecture theatre. I’m left with the impression of a rare kind of practice, based on mutual support and a strong sense of the poetics and the possibilities of building. It augurs well for the challenge of Venice next year.