Ella Jessel talks exclusively to Yvonne Farrell about what it means for the practice she co-founded to win the prestigious RIBA Royal Gold Medal
EJ Congratulations on winning the RIBA Gold Medal. What does this award mean to the practice?
YF We’re really honoured and thrilled to be acknowledged by our peers. It really makes the hard work of every day very meaningful. These are the special moments of our hard-working career, as architecture can be very hard.
Every architect around the world works each day to make everything meaningful. To say this is the cherry on the cake is too trite. It [the prize] means the comradery of the discipline of architecture. A medal from the Queen of England is so meaningful; it’s a meaningful flag.
Looking back over your portfolio, what are you most proud of and how have your designs changed?
We don’t have a style. Each project is a question. For the Venice Biennale [which Grafton curated] its theme ‘Freespace’ was about the gifts that architecture gives. It was also trying to capture for non-architects how the general public should be absolutely outspoken in demanding the highest quality in architecture.
The more the public has access to our profession, the better it will be. RTE [Ireland’s public service broadcaster] commissioned a nationwide popular-timeslot film about the biennale and in that little half-hour film they really got it.
Architects are like magicians; every architect invents something.
We can make architecture accessible by just listening to what the client is saying
Do architects have to do more to make what they do accessible?
The BBC documentary series Blue Planet makes the beauty of the world accessible every week to television viewers. Architecture doesn’t have to be about interior design and having the best couch.
Architecture is very much a spatial phenomenon. It’s about spatial sequence and choreography.
One of the big problems is how do you make architecture accessible. Architects can do this by just listening to what the client is saying and delving very deeply into their own experience.
Broadly speaking, how has the industry and profession changed over your working lifetimes?
Contracts have changed to protect clients more and the relationships between architects and craftspeople are different.
Nowadays there is very little leeway in a project. Contracting is a very complex phenomenon and to try and hold onto the craftsmanship has become more difficult.
2008 bocconi 1 federico brunetti
Source: Federico Brunetti
What are the main challenges facing architecture today?
There is the challenge of being valued. One of the main problems for younger architects is getting projects. There are strategies that exclude either by default or design. You need chances and you need support [to win work]. There should be more money spent on competitions and they should be better-paid.
Is architects’ marginalisation still an issue?
I remember being at a conference and there was a pie-chart drawing of a pizza and the architects’ share was getting smaller and smaller and the project management share was growing.
But societies that value architects benefit in the end. Architecture is how societies represent themselves and architects hold the dreams of people.
What about the climate emergency? Do architects need to change the way they work, by considering retrofit as default, or changing materials they specify?
Definitely. Part of our manifesto for the Venice Biennale was to do with the earth being our client. This is something also being taught in architecture schools.
We are passionate about trying to learn a technique where buildings are ‘responsible’. You cannot be a contemporary architect without deeply feeling responsible for the building, and you choose that you don’t do things casually.
Your buildings use a lot of concrete. Is that something that might start to change?
UTEC [University campus] in Lima is right beside the sea and it traps the wind. Steel near the sea becomes corroded. We are doing deeper research into the nature of concrete and [finding] more sustainable concrete. In that project, we were trying to catch shade and catch wind and we needed something that was integrated.
We’re looking deeply into timber as a material and how it is grown. It is necessary for architects to become more responsible in what we specify.
Regarding retrofit, we [architects] need to look at what exists already, to see how we can modify what we have.
2006 loreto community school milford co. donegal main view dusk 1 o ros kavanagh
In 2013 you said women were often ‘invisible’. Has the profession made progress?
All I see is really intelligent men and women. Imagination is not a gender issue. We were completely shocked when we read how women are paid less than men. It should not be allowed in any situation. Women in the profession do need more support. In times of change and different phases the profession needs to nurture talent through thick and thin. The more voices we hear, the better the architecture.
Awards are like a shot in arm, they are the happy moments. If only we could bottle it!
There has been a day of action in protest at the lack of women awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. Do you have any thoughts on this?
We’re delighted to receive it and there should be more women recipients. When you think of awards and prizes, they are a kind of confirmation. There’s an Irish saying: If you praise the young, they will succeed. Encouragement and finding a collective voice in the discipline of architecture is essential.
It’s something Shelley and I really witnessed at the Venice Biennale, how there was a world of colleagues, of warriors, who work really hard each day to enrich lives and they are under the radar.
What’s wonderful about an award like this is that it is your peers putting a stamp [on your work]. Awards are like a shot in arm, they are the happy moments. If only we could bottle it!