Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey became the third husband and wife team to receive the RIBA Royal Gold Medal after picking up the award in recognition of their lifetime’s work yesterday (3 February)
The pair, who are also among the youngest recipients of the award, follow in the footsteps of Charles and Ray Eames and Michael and Patty Hopkins.
Speaking to the AJ, the Dublin-based couple said they could not have been recognised individually.
‘There wouldn’t be any question of it being any other way,’ said Tuomey.
‘We don’t know any other mode of practice. We work so closely together. It’s our work/life practice. Our studio practice is part of our approach to life. We are life partners. Our hobby is our serious topic and we live the subject together.’
O’Donnell added: ‘We are both involved in every project, which isn’t always the case in partnerships.
‘All kinds of things feed into the making of an architectural practice, including books you’ve read, buildings you’ve seen, and in that sense having shared those experiences is really important. Everything we have experienced we’ve done it together. There isn’t a separating line between us.’
The two architects founded their practice O’Donnell + Tuomey in 1988, and have had five buildings shortlisted for the Stirling Prize since 1999 but always missed out on the top prize.
The pair, who were nominated for the Gold Medal by 2014 recipient Joseph Rykwert and architect Niall McLaughlin, said they were ‘astounded’ by the award which they said ‘made them feel more confident about moving forward’.
They picked up the medal on Tuesday (3 February) after giving a double-act six-part lecture on their work and approach to architecture at the RIBA the previous night.
Speaking about the award ahead of the lecture, RIBA president Stephen Hodder, said: ‘It is a very rare occasion to recognise two architects with the Gold Medal. Their buildings are never anything but graceful. We all became very aware it was the right time to recognise them and there was an appropriateness to the decision.’
Interview with Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey
How does it feel to be recognised with the Gold Medal?
[Sheila] ‘It is an amazing feeling of recognition and support. It makes you feel that the aspects of architecture that have concerned us and driven our work all this time are meaningful. We feel that part of our role is building society. That is very important to us – the sense of architecture as a social art. We’re astounded.’
‘It is a wonderful award. Every other award we’ve got or been shortlisted for is one which we have applied for. You either win or you don’t. But this is different. It feels like we have been picked out. It’s a gift. It makes you feel more confident about moving forward.’
[John] ‘It is very encouraging.’
You are the third husband and wife team to pick up the medal. Was it important for you to be recognised together?[John] ‘We don’t know any other mode of practice. We work so closely together. It’s our work/life practice. There wouldn’t be any question of it being any other way. Our studio practice is part of our approach to life. We are life partners. Our hobby is our serious topic and we live the subject together.’
[Sheila] ‘We are both involved in every project, which isn’t always the case in partnerships. It would be difficult to separate out what each of our separate roles is particularly at the early concept design stage. All kinds of things feed into the making of an architectural practice, including books you’ve read, buildings you’ve seen and in that sense having shared those experiences is really important. There is no gap between the experience we both have. We feel that architecture is a very experiential art – it’s based on understanding what it is like to experience places. Maybe it is partly that the films, the books, pretty much everything we have experienced we’ve done it together. There isn’t a separating line between us.’
What would you have done if it had just been given to one of you?
[John] ‘I don’t think that could have ever arisen in our case. Our roles aren’t divided. We don’t have a front woman and a back man.’
In nominating you, Niall McLaughlin said that you have had the most significant impact on Irish architecture over the past 20 years. How do you think you have influenced Irish architecture?
[John] ‘We must have had some effect in Niall McLaughlin. It’s not for us to say. We feel very strongly attached to the place that we have come from but we also feel pretty rooted in London too.’
[Sheila] ‘In our case going away from the place and then going back is good. It makes our rootedness to place develop more strongly. We lived in London for five years and then went back to Ireland. We see it as insiders but then we also see it through the eyes of someone who has been elsewhere. Our generation collectively, has tried to portray a sense of urbanity and contextualism. We have tried to make our work appropriate to Ireland. When we were students architecture was mostly a business in Ireland, not many of the architects were engaged with the wide range of things that we think are essential. We have also always taught and that engages you with the culture and place. We just keep trying.’
Are universities preparing architecture students for practice?
[John] ‘Teaching is a really important part of our practice. It is part of our daily routine. In a way it is part of the fact that we are working in Dublin and teaching in Dublin. It is our contribution to the continuity of the profession and to the culture. There is a reciprocal relationship. We teach in a school but teaching in a school teaches us. It keeps you on your toes, it keeps your eyes and ears open. Students are proposing things that lead you to remind yourself of why you are with it or against it. You have to refresh your thinking on a weekly basis – in our case every Friday.’
[Sheila] ‘At the school where we teach, all the people teaching in the studio are practicing architects. You can probably never prepare someone completely for practice, but it helps when the people teaching are practicing architects. It is a strong characteristic for the school which we teach in. We do try to prepare students.’
[John] ‘Teaching all your life means you are a permanent student.’
O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects’ Stirling Prize-shortlisted projects
Saw Swee Hock Student Centre, LSE
Shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2014
Shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2012
An Gaelaras Irish Language Arts and Cultural Centre
Shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2011
Lewis Glucksman Gallery
Shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2005
Ranelagh Multi-Denominational School
Shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 1999
AJ Buildings Library