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O'Donnell and Tuomey: 'Can we now be labelled as having emerged?'

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Richard Waite interviews RIBA Gold Medal winners Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey

How do you feel about winning this award?
Sheila: We’re humbled to find ourselves in such a company of heroes, architects whose work we have studied and from whose example we continue to learn.
John: It has really taken us aback being ranked with people like Mies and Aalto.

Would you rather win the Royal Gold Medal or the Stirling Prize – for which you have now been nominated five times?
John: It is hard for us to say. We have never won the Stirling Prize so we can’t compare it!
Sheila: With the Stirling Prize, it is like other competitions, where you go through a gradual process of submissions and rounds etc. But there is something very uplifting to receive something [out of the blue] and from your peers. Architecture is sometimes very hard. But for us this award [recognises] that we have tried to dedicate our life to the subject of architecture and engage with its culture.

Have you placed a bet on yourself to win the Stirling Prize this year?
Sheila: Somebody has put money on us. But it wasn’t us.
John: We should have put money on us before… when the odds were good.

You worked with James Stirling at the start of your career. What did he teach you?
John: Initially he was my hero, but he became like an uncle. By osmosis or contagion, I’ve learned to stick with your concept the whole way through. You have to be the last man standing. Believe in the project. Focus.Stay with it. He also warned me that you should only expect to build one in 12 projects you design. He was not that wrong.

What have you got left to do as a practice?
Sheila: We feel we are getting started. Emergence takes a lot longer in architecture than other fields. I would like to work on bigger schemes and would love to do more social housing.
John: Can we now be labelled as having emerged? All of our work is very intensive but we have never got beyond schemes for medium sized buildings. I’d to design something more strategic – where something gets going.

Is being an architect harder now than it used to be?
Sheila: Practice is getting harder. It is not just in architecture – everything is increasingly regulated. Everybody has to be more trained and do more CPD. And winning work is getting harder.It is frustrating that you have to have done 10 of everything [before you get considered] and there are so many more boxes to tick.
John: We are specialists in non-specialism. But it is hard to make the value of that understood. People want to know you’ve done it before. Yet some of the best buildings in the world have been done by people who have never designed that kind of building before.

How do you feel about the competition process?
John: Every project in the office has come through competitions. Our only private commissions have been for houses. We wouldn’t have an office if it wasn’t for contests. It’s great to win but it’s exhausting when we lose. Actually I absolutely hate them – but we need the eggs.
Sheila: It is such a trap to do competitions – but I can’t imagine life without them.

How does teaching influence yourselves and the practice?
John: We teach to keep our own minds open and keep our responses springy. We both actually like students. The thing I enjoyed about the students in the US was how productive they were, especially with their hands. There is a wonderfully artisan feel there.

No woman has ever won the Royal Gold Medal on her own. Is it becoming any easier for women in the profession?
Sheila: Things are changing. Before founding O’Donnell + Tuomey [in 1988] I set up on my own. At the time I was the only practice headed by a woman. But the women are coming – they are on their way. The winner of this year’s Gold Medal is 50 per cent woman. It probably won’t be too long before it is a 100 per cent winner. My advice to any young woman who is about to begin a career in architecture is the same I’d give to anyone. It is about tenacity and hanging in here. Only do it if you love it. You have to accept that architecture is very broad and touches on so many aspects, from sociological to technological and each enriches the other. Women can handle the complexity of these issues and pull together all the strands as easily as a man.

Will you be having a party to celebrate the Royal Gold Medal?
John: Maybe not just one. We have our book launch on Friday (click here for details) and we will have our friends and clients there who don’t know yet. So we will celebrate then. And there is the ceremony in February [at the RIBA]. We are not really black tie and bow tie people – but you never know we may even dress up.   

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