Four projects have been shortlisted for the RIBA International Prize. We asked each of the architects for their thoughts on technology, craft and the future - here, O'Donnell + Tuomey

Craft and really getting inside the organisation has enabled O’Donnell + Tuomey to design the CEU.
Craft and really getting inside the organisation has enabled O’Donnell + Tuomey to design the CEU. Credit: Tam Bujnovszky

Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, O’Donnell + Tuomey
Central European University Phase 1, Budapest, Hungary. Refurbishment and new build around courtyards knitting together a new urban campus

What gave you the chance of making a great building? 

Sheila O’Donnell: The client was brilliant and we had time to elaborate the brief. We started with immersion, physical, social, historical and the users. Between us we saw more than 50 user groups. It becomes like a Dickens novel, there are so many characters. And the city – we have come to understand Budapest in a very intense way.

John Tuomey: We came at it from the inside, hollowing out the space from within the block like quarrymen. It is around 50% new, 50% transformation. The new feels of its time but it is important it doesn’t embarrass or mimic the old building.

What has most changed the way you work in the last decade?

SO’D: Bureaucracy has increased a lot, there were always regulations to keep up with but after you get work there are many more layers than necessary. One of the most important layers is management. For a building to have a life those running it need to be fully part of the intellectual process of architecture. When that conversation is distanced the building suffers. We try and build those relationships at every level from chief executor to contractor, but project management can get in the way. 

How have your processes or buildings changed with digital technologies? 

JT: In my life I have the same pencils, the same notebook, the same roll of sketchpaper. But working out from my desk there is much change. Revit and BIM is probably what we thought computers would be when we moved to CAD: faster, can be turned around more quickly and definitely needed for trans­national projects.

SO’D: We have used new technology to allow things not to change in our approach. We keep the same things on drawings and still use physical models.  

 

  • Avoiding embarrassing or mimicking the historic building – phase 1 of the Central European University in Budapest is 50:50 new and old.
    Avoiding embarrassing or mimicking the historic building – phase 1 of the Central European University in Budapest is 50:50 new and old. Credit: Tam Bujnovsky
1

Do you take advantage of prefabrication or improvements in building or material technology?

JT: What is prefab? Windows are, bolts are. Saying that, I have a totally prefabricated house on my desk. But the university is a crafted building, that is the industry in Budapest. 

SO’D: We have used precast materials on the university. And in concrete and steel we are very aware of developing technologies, including changing concrete mixes for environmental and other reasons. 

Do you still see the importance of the craft, or art, of making? Where is that visible on this building?

JT: Architecture as a discipline is a craft. A tiny thing I have found: making things just a little bit difficult to do means they get done a lot better. We can’t talk about craft without talking about humanity and people’s willingness to do well is undiminished. You take a guy on site by the hand to the wall and suddenly you are talking the same language. 

SO’D: The way we wanted to use the beautiful local stone was a surprise to the team. The contractors tendered for 80mm thick stone then suggested 20mm of Chinese stone. Discussions become economic and philosophical. We kept the depth.

JT: When you are in the quarry saying mitre no joints and cut no edges you are understood. But not when you are in a meeting and it is item seven on the agenda.

What can your shortlisted building tell us about the architecture of the future?

JT: It shows how the useful beauty of architecture contributes to the shape of society. That an architect has the role of being the one who proposes. That comes with a lot of value.

What is the greatest challenge that architects face? What can individual architects do about it?

JT: Believing that architecture itself is worth the effort, even if that is just appreciating it. That is the real task, keeping the subject alive and maintaining a sense of purpose in itself. 

SO’D: The architects’ role is building society. That is becoming more difficult but it is important to keep all the voices at the table. 


The RIBA International Prize is announced on 22 November.

Read the thoughts of the other shortlisted architects here: Nikken Sekkei, Stefano Boeri Architetti, Aleph Zero

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