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Irish star Sheila O’Donnell wins WIA Architect of the Year 2019


O’Donnell + Tuomey’s Sheila O’Donnell has been named Architect of the Year at the Women in Architecture (WIA) awards, while 43-year-old Xu Tiantian from China has won the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture

The annual awards, which were presented at a prizegiving lunch today (1 March) at The Savoy in London, are backed by the AJ and sister title The Architectural Review.

The O’Donnell + Tuomey co-founder saw off competition from three other finalists to win the top prize for her practice’s revamp of the Central European University in Budapest, which was also a contender for the RIBA International Prize 2018.

Also in the running were OMA partner Ellen van Loon for the Qatar National Library in Doha, Eva Prats of Flores & Prats for Casal Balaguer Cultural Centre in Palma de Mallorca, and Carme Pigem of 2017 Pritzker Prize-winning practice RCR Arquitectes for De Krook Library in Ghent.

O’Donnell’s first-phase project for the university is a limestone-clad €34 million teaching building, part of a masterplan to consolidate the institution into a single 35,000m² campus.

The scheme adds a new building, including a lecture theatre, cafés, offices, classrooms and a library, to an existing structure which has been transformed with bold interventions such as a dramatic pitched glass roof and sculptural red steel staircases.

The Women in Architecture Awards jury, which included Pritzker Prize chief Martha Thorne and academic and novelist Lesley Lokko said: ‘O’Donnell’s passion for the buildings of the Central European University was rewarded with an exceptionally high-quality building which she evidently fought hard for.

‘She is a role model for young women in architecture. Sheila O’Donnell did not have to break the glass ceiling – her and John Tuomey created a new reality.’

1. central european university phase 1, o donnell + tuomey, photograph by tam bujnovszky

1. central european university phase 1, o donnell + tuomey, photograph by tam bujnovszky

Source: Tam Bujnovszky

Central European University in Budapest by O’ Donnell + Tuomey

The second phase of the project is understood to be on indefinite hold after the university announced it would move most of its courses out of Hungary following pressure from the country’s right-wing government.

Together with husband John Tuomey, O’Donnell established their Dublin-based studio in 1988. The pair were awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 2015 in recognition of their work, and the practice has been shortlisted for the Stirling Prize five times, including for its Lyric Theatre in Belfast and the London School of Economics’ student centre in London, which was recently revisited by the AJ

Accepting the award, O’Donnell said: ‘It’s a great honour. We still need the WIA prize. It’s about celebration.

’There’s something very special about having a group of just women talking about architecture [today and at last night’s RIBA event]. It shines a spotlight on the problems we still have. Until we have equal pay and the other problems are sorted out we do still need the WIA awards.’

View four projects by O’Donnell + Tuomey in the AJ Buildings Library

The Architect of the Year accolade rewards work on a single recently completed project and has previously been won by Peruvian architect Sandra Barclay in 2018, Mexican architect Gabriela Carrillo in 2017 and US star Jeanne Gang in 2016.

Meanwhile, the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture, which recognises excellence in design and a bright future for women designers under the age of 45, went to Xu Tiantian, founder of Beijing-based practice DnA. 

DnA's Dushan leisure centre

DnA’s Dushan leisure center

DnA’s Dushan leisure centre

Xu’s work focuses on the idea of ‘architectural acupuncture’ in the rural Chinese county of Songyang. Projects include a bridge connecting the villages of two villages of Shimen and Shimenyu, a brown-sugar factory, the Hakka Indenture Museum, a tofu factory and the Wang Jing Memorial Hall.

The judges said: ‘There is an effortlessness, maturity and deftness about Xu’s work, which is equally translatable and relevant in rural China as North Yorkshire.

‘Her projects are all deeply contextual, and executed with bravery and conviction. She is attempting to work in a sustainable way with an entrepreneurial spirit, and has clearly had a very positive impact on her client.’

Tofu Factory, DnA.

Tofu Factory, DnA.

Source: Wang Ziling

Tofu Factory by DnA

Other finalists included Lina Ghotmeh of French practice Lina Ghotmeh Architecture, Irene Pérez of TEd’A Arquitectes, based in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and Jeannette Kuo of Karamuk Kuo, based in Switzerland.

Xu will receive a £10,000 prize fund created in memory of the late Moira Gemmill, director of design at the V&A and latterly director of capital programmes at the Royal Collection Trust. 

The Women in Architecture Awards also saw Diller Scofidio + Renfro co-founder Elizabeth Diller win the 2019 Jane Drew Prize, while photographer Hélène Binet was named recipient of this year’s Ada Louise Huxtable Prize.

The awards recognise the lifetime work of raising the profile of women in architecture and the broader industry.

More information about the Women in Architecture Awards and campaign can be found here


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