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Grafton Architects: 'Awards are like Christmases'

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Grafton Architects co-founders Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara picked up the 2015 Jane Drew Prize on Friday (27 February). The pair talk to Laura Mark about what the award means to them, architectural competitions, and the architectural awards culture

How does it feel to be recognised with the Jane Drew Prize?
[Shelley McNamara]
Very honoured. She is a figure we very much admire. The news came out of the blue and it was a wonderful surprise. Any award is wonderful but this one is particularly interesting because of the theme of her work, her ambition and her influence and effect on architectural thinking. It makes us feel very proud.

What drove you to set up your practice together?
[Yvonne Farrell]
We set up our practice in 1978. It began as a cooperative of five. The cooperative idea was very important in that the practice wasn’t about a single figure. It was about the energy of the group. At university we apprenticed ourselves to Le Corbusier, and were nicknamed the Corb group. We were fascinated by his work in Chandigarh. We began working in London and then moved back to Ireland where we set up the practice with a major project in the city of Limerick.
[SM] We didn’t really have a choice [other than to set up on our own]. We asked a lot of people in Dublin if we could work with them. Our requests were a little half-hearted because we weren’t fully in sympathy with the work of many of the practices. Our only option was to set up our own practice to make the kind of work we wanted to. The head of Dublin’s school of architecture was generous enough to give us work teaching which meant that we had some stability both intellectually and financially.

Why the name Grafton Architects?
We chose the name Grafton Architects because there were five of us and we didn’t want five names. It was about claiming a place. We found a studio on Grafton Street. We took the name of the place to describe our studio. For us what has become more and more significant over the years is place and the claiming of place in culture. It has become very central to our work.

Awards are really important for the team

The University of Limerick was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize - how important do you think awards are for architects and architecture?
They are really important for the team. Architects work unbelievably hard. For the people who commission the project it is a real endorsement on their choice. It’s a hard and long road to make a building. Awards are a moment of celebration. They are an important human moment in the process of a building.
[SM] Recognising the client is important. At the University of Limerick they were fantastic clients who invested a lot of energy, commitment, and trust in us. It is a recognition that it’s worth it and that it pays off to go for architecture rather than simply building.
[YF] Awards are like the Christmases of the year. The architecture world needs to have moments where you stop and look at a building. These buildings have been singled out by peers and those whose judgements you respect. When we won the World Building of the Year Award in 2008 it was just at the moment when the Bocconi building was opening to the public. It was wonderful. It created a public interest in the architecture.

We plea for clients and other bodies to set up competitions properly

What is your view on architectural competitions?
Competitions are incredible methods for architects around the world to engage with different places and to participate. Architects should push for competitions to be paid better. They take a huge amount of intellectual energy. They are a fantastic opening for ideas but the commitment that architects put into each competition is unbelievable. We plea for clients and other bodies to set up competitions properly and to pay well and value what architects give to them.

You picked up your first UK project last year, has it been difficult to get work in the UK?
We won Kingston University by competition but we’ve only ever done two UK competitions. We got on the shortlist for the LSE. It was actually wonderful to win one out of two. We are a bit negligent in looking out for competition notices. It is very important to us to work in Ireland. The reason why all our work in the past few years has been abroad is that there was no work in Ireland. It’s as simple as that. Now work is coming back and it is amazing for us to be able to work in Ireland. That is our culture.

Do you have a style?
We don’t have a recognisable style of work but we try to mine into the culture of a place and design something based on the local traditions that may be just below the surface.

At the 2013 AJ Women in Architecture Luncheon, you called for more women architects to be taught in schools of architecture. Do you think this is still a problem?
I made the point that women were invisible. Names like Eileen Gray or Lina Bo Bardi need to come more to the fore so students know they exist. When we were students we knew about these women architects but their work wasn’t celebrated. There are terrific makers who are women and they should be recognised. There is also a huge number of female students and we would encourage them to not vanish. Have a creative energy. Imagination is not a gender issue. Unless we are careful things slip.

Clients don’t look at whether you are a man or a woman

Do women have a different approach to architecture?
Clients don’t look at whether you are a man or woman but look at what you can bring to the job. It is a capacity to solve problems and to give something extra. Architecture is not just building. When someone goes to the trouble to create a building and they want architecture which is an unforeseen characteristic, they don’t look at man or woman. It is about creativity and sensitivity.

What needs to be done to help women in the profession?
It is ridiculous that women are not paid as much as men. It is unbelievable. Society needs to include women as the children grow up. Childbearing should not be the end. The female voice is a valid experiential voice, but because women are listening they are often seen as stepping aside.

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