In a rare triumph for female architects, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the industry’s most prestigious honor, has been awarded to two women: Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. The Irish architects, who co-founded the Dublin-based firm Grafton Architects in 1978, are only the fourth and fifth female recipients in the prize’s 41-year history.
“Their approach to architecture is always honest, revealing an understanding of the processes of design and construction from large scale structures to the smallest details,” the Pritzker jury writes of the 2020 prize winners. “It is often in these details, especially in buildings with modest budgets, where a big impact can be felt.”
Farrell and McNamara, who are also long-time lecturers at the University College, Dublin, have a knack for designing inspired academic institutions. Among them is the school’s energy-efficient Urban Institute of Ireland building, the Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan, Italy, the University of Limerick’s medical school, and the Université Toulouse School of Economics. Their work in Peru’s University Campus UTEC Lima—designed to maximize the cool breeze from the nearby ocean—has been hailed by Pritzker judges as an ingenious solution that responds to “both site and climatic needs.”
“What we try to do in our work is to be aware of the various levels of citizenship and try to find an architecture that deals with overlap, that heightens your relationship to one another,” explained Farrell in a press statement. “Architecture is a framework for human life.”
“Within the ethos of a practice such as ours, 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,” said McNamara. “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.”
As curators of the last Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018, Farrell and McNamara proved to be adept at wrangling and synthesizing various threads within the global architecture community. Under the theme “Freespace,” they sought to reinforce the idea that “generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity [is] at the core of architecture’s agenda,” amid all the dazzling feats of engineering and architecture around the world.
Advocates for gender parity in the largely male profession are celebrating Farrell and McNamara’s win. They join the late Zaha Hadid, Kazuyo Sejima, and Carme Pigem on the short list of women who have been recognized by the Pritzker. This year’s eight-member jury was again headed by US Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, who is known for his interest in civic-minded architecture and once supervised the construction of Boston’s John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse.
Following tradition, Farrell and McNamara will receive a $100,000 grant from the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the annual prize, and bronze medals based on the designs of the 19th-century American architect Louis Sullivan.