Grafton Architects Wins Britain’s Top Architecture Honour


British architecture’s highest honour, the RIBA gold medal, has been awarded to a Dublin-based practice led by women and known for its embrace of brutalism and commitment to academia.

The 2020 RIBA gold medal was awarded to Grafton Architects, a firm co-founded by Irish architecture professors Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara in 1978.

It is just the second time in the award’s 172-year history that the prize has been given to a firm led by women after Zaha Hadid’s 2016 win.

Far removed from the “starchitect” culture of cultivated instagrams and branding strategies, Farrell and McNamara teach and lecture internationally and have been solidly working from their Dublin base for 40-odd years.

RIBA president Alan Jones said that the breadth of supporters for Grafton Architects gold medal nomination was a “roll call of significant names from the worlds of academia, arts and architecture”.

▲ Grafton Architects directors Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.
▲ Grafton Architects directors Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.

The duo curated last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale with the theme “freespace” which called for “generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda”.

Farrell and McNamara said that the invitation to curate the 2018 biennale came as a surprise.

“And that’s putting it mildly.”

The prestigious award is not the firm’s first accolade—the practice was awarded RIBA’s international prize in 2016 for a university campus in Peru, while it's Universita Luigi Bocconi building in Milan was awarded the “world building of the year” and the RIAI triennial gold medal.

The Royal Gold Medal, “approved personally” by the Queen according to a press release issued by the RAIA, will be presented to Grafton Architects at a ceremony in early 2020.

▲ Grafton Architect's Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia in Peru won the 2016 RIBA International Award.
▲ Grafton Architect's Universidad de Ingenieria y Tecnologia in Peru won the 2016 RIBA International Award.

In a statement, Farrell and McNamara said the firm works hard to give each project the attention needed to “hopefully enrich people’s lives”.

“For us, architecture is an optimistic profession, with the opportunity to anticipate future realities.

“It is of the highest cultural importance because it is the built enclose of human lives.

“It translates people’s needs and dreams into built form, into the silent language of space.”

Australia’s equivalent of the gold medal—granted by Australian architecture’s peak body, the AIA—was awarded in June to Los Angeles-based expatriates Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg.

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