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Weekend roundup: Grafton’s win starts redressing gold medal gender imbalance

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This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon AldousGrafton wins RIBA Gold Medal • Zaha Hadid Architects Beijing airport opens • Government launches new design guide • Housing association puts all new schemes on hold • Viñoly to design Hackney Tesco

Congratulations to Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, founders and directors of Grafton Architects, which has won the 2020 RIBA Royal Gold Medal, awarded for significant influence on the advancement of architecture.

The Dublin-based practice formed 41 years ago in 1978, with the two directors having known each other since they were students at University College, Dublin.

Female winners of the gold medal are few and far between. Unless you include the 800,000 women living in Barcelona, since the entire city won the prize in 1999 (and obviously you don’t), the only women to receive it have been Sheila O’Donnell, Patty Hopkins and Ray Eames (all as one half of a couple) and Zaha Hadid – the only previous time the medal has recognised a solely female-led practice.

But while Hadid was very much the architectural diva, Farrell and McNamara could hardly be more different, coming across as down to earth, at pains to stress the collaborative nature of their work and, notably, naming their practice after the street where it was originally based rather than using their names.

Much of their work has been in the higher education sector, including a Stirling-shortlisted scheme for the University of Limerick, and most notably their university campus for UTEC in Lima, Peru, which won the inaugural RIBA International Prize in 2016. Their growing reputation was cemented by their appointment to curate the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.

One group that will be particularly happy about the Gold Medal win is Part W, which campaigns for gender parity in architecture. Since the medal’s recipient is initially based on nominations, it has actively lobbied for RIBA members to nominate women for the award, producing a clear guide on how to do so.

In August Part W revealed its alternative list of female winners for most of the years of the medal’s 171-year existence, making the point that there were plenty of worthy women candidates over the years. Recent alternative winners included Denise Scott Brown, Elizabeth Diller and Amada Levete as well as, for the 2019 medal … Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara!

Starfishchitect: ZHA more than makes up for losing airport competition

Zha beijing new airport 01

Zha beijing new airport 01

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Beijing Daxing Airport, the largest single terminal building in the world, has opened following a five-year construction process. And it provides an inspiring example of resilience to any practice that fails to win the competition it had set its heart on. 

While ZHA was longlisted for the job, it failed to make the shortlist for the job. Fosters made the final three but ultimately lost out to French practice and airport specialist ADP Ingenièrie in September 2014. But a month later ZHA was back in business, drafted on to the £8.8 billion project to ‘optimise’ concept designs. 

Exactly what went on in the intervening five years is not in the public record but the building unveiled this week has been very much presented as ZHA’s creation. And looking at its distinctive sculptural form, that seems likely to be a fair attribution. 

The practice itself, while stressing that the design was a collaboration, credits itself with ‘providing a unified architectural language across the terminal, from the exterior forms of the building to the seamless architecture of the interior’ while ADP Ingenièrie led the development of the terminal’s functional and technical specifications’.  

Its starfish-like form creates five aircraft piers, allowing planes to be parked directly at the terminal (a sixth protrusion contains train stations and a hotel). The shape is designed to minimise walking times from the airport’s central court. The practice says its ‘radial configuration ensures the farthest boarding gate can be accessed in a walking time of less than eight minutes’. 

The building maximises natural light and uses photovoltaics and ground-source heat pumps to reduce its carbon emissions, though this will be of little comfort to those who argue that a major expansion of air travel – 72 million journeys a year by 2025 – renders such measures near-irrelevant. 

ZHA was one of the original signatories of this year’s Architects Declare initiative to combat the climate crisis. And while a genuine change of heart would have come too late to affect this project, the practice seems to have shown no loss of appetite for airport schemes. It won the competition to design India’s new Navi Mumbai International Airport last year and is one of five shortlisted teams for Australia’s new Western Sydney International Airport – along with fellow Architects Declare signatories Fosters and RSHP.

Finally, an end to ugly design!

Robert jenrick

Robert jenrick

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has announced a government design guide which will end ‘ugly development’. Do you feel we may have been here before?

Roger Scruton’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission may still be working on its final report, but that was commissioned by Jenrick’s predecessor James Brokenshire and barely gets lip service in the new guide.

Jenrick said the guidance would replace ‘unenforceable design ideas’ without caring to expand on exactly what he might be referring to. But commenting on the story, AJ reader Gareth Hughes described the examples of good practice in the guidance document as ‘soft-Modern schemes which seem to have been chosen to annoy the Scrutons of this world’.

The housing secretary unveiled the initiative at the Conservative Party Conference and probably know what his audience wants to hear – which is that ugly design is bad, but not that much of it is produced by Tory-donating developers keen to build with as little restriction as possible.

That somewhat-conflicting pressure could explain the other significant component of Jenrick’s speech, announcing a further rollout of permitted development rights. These allow certain building projects to go ahead without any planning restrictions whatsoever and have been blamed for the rash of low-quality office-to-resi conversions described as the ‘slums of the future’.

As RIBA president Alan Jones commented, publishing new design guidance alongside rules that ‘allow projects to sidestep vital quality and environmental standards, just doesn’t make sense’.

L&Q puts all new schemes on hold



Just two weeks after revealing the practices that would be on its new architectural framework, Housing Association L&Q has put all new schemes on hold, blaming Brexit uncertainty.

It had previously announced its intention to build 10,000 homes in a decade, but announced the ‘pause’ in new projects saying the housing sector was ‘operating in one of the most challenging environments in recent history’.

Its chief executive David Montague said that the Brexit limbo had ‘resulted in a serious downturn in the housing market’, while also citing ‘ever-growing costs to meet new government guidelines on fire safety’.

Last month, the housing association named no fewer than 76 practices for its £50 million architecture framework. The selected architects include AHMM, Hawkins\Brown and Allies and Morrison.

Every little helps

Hackney tesco

Hackney tesco

Rafael Viñoly has finally made the big time. The Uruguayan architect may have designed numerous high-profile buildings around the world in his 55-year career but evidently he feels that you’re nobody till you’ve done a Tescos.

Developer Hackney Walk has appointed his practice to design a replacement supermarket for an existing Tesco superstore at Hackney Central in east London. The scheme will also include offices and 530 homes, with outline plans suggesting a collection of six buildings of up to 19 storeys.

If the scheme goes ahead, Viñoly will have one up on the now-defunct Michael Aukett Architects, which designed a scheme for the same site – locally known as ‘Tesco Towers’ – but was refused planning permission in 2010. 

Other high-profile architects to design a Tescos include Broadway Malyan, whose own Tesco Extra in Woolwich won it the 2014 Carbuncle Cup – an accolade that Viñoly will be familiar with, having won it for his Walkie Talkie tower in the City of London.  

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Nice to see they've accurately portrayed some of the extensive buddleia growing out of the viaduct on the left hand side but what's happened to the massive overhead electrification gantries on the side of the viaduct? No wonder there's a stationary train above.

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