2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize Goes To Yvonne Farrell And Shelley McNamara Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara founded Grafton Architects in Dublin in 1978. The Pritzker Architecture Prize jury called the two Irish architects "beacons" in a male-dominated field.
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For The 1st Time, Architecture's Most Prestigious Prize Is Awarded To 2 Women

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For The 1st Time, Architecture's Most Prestigious Prize Is Awarded To 2 Women

For The 1st Time, Architecture's Most Prestigious Prize Is Awarded To 2 Women

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/811030441/811722632" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The most prestigious award in architecture was announced today. For the first time, it is going to two women who work together. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The architects introduced themselves in a video released by the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHELLEY MCNAMARA: My name is Shelley McNamara.

YVONNE FARRELL: And my name is Yvonne Farrell.

ULABY: Farrell and McNamara are Irish. They co-founded their architecture firm 42 years ago in Dublin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCNAMARA: Our name, Grafton Architects, comes from the street where we set up our first office. So we are anchored in our own place and in our own culture.

ULABY: It's telling that they did not name the firm after themselves, says Sarah Whiting. She is dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design. The name Grafton illustrates a commitment to existing spaces and fitting into them, she says. And she's delighted by the choice.

SARAH WHITING: It's a really satisfying announcement, and they are just phenomenally good architects.

ULABY: Whiting says the Grafton style draws on brutalist traditions. Their buildings are massive, boxy and monumental. But they also embrace you in form and light.

WHITING: It's very strong architecture. Their buildings are very inviting, even though they're pretty beefy buildings, frankly.

ULABY: One of their best-known is the School of Economics in Milan, Italy, which they designed using heavy gray local stone. The top evokes a Legoland geologic formation, but the street level is luminous glass. Architect Shelley McNamara said in a 2015 lecture in Stockholm it's supposed to feel as though it's floating above the city, in answer to the drama of the Piazza del Duomo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCNAMARA: There was also this sense of ground and sky - that we would carve the ground and that we would make a kind of a sky world which would hover over that ground.

ULABY: This was Grafton's first building outside of Ireland, says Robert McCarter. He's an architecture professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and he wrote a book about Grafton Architects. He says the design required a thousand faculty offices. They seem suspended above the building in long, rectangular rows clad in glass.

ROBERT MCCARTER: Which means they have light, but they also become kind of a filter through which the skylight pours down into the spaces below.

ULABY: Grafton Architects has become a leader in designing university buildings in Paris, Lima and London. And Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell met as architecture students. Buildings for schools, they say, need to be both marketplaces and monasteries.

Here's Yvonne Farrell in 2014 at the Royal Academy of Arts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FARRELL: If you put students into a certain kind of space, they will expect to be fed. If you put them into another kind of space, they will expect to be challenged, or they're automatically challenged.

ULABY: Challenge is nothing Grafton Architects shy from, says Robert McCarter. And he's pleased this award is the latest in a string of high-profile honors.

MCCARTER: I don't think there's anybody working in the world right now that's quite in the same league with them. They're really amazing. And there's a whole variety of reasons. One is that their buildings fit so well in these historic contexts. I mean, they get the toughest sites in some of the cities.

ULABY: Yet they make cities seem to flow into their big statement buildings, he says.

MCCARTER: They don't really look like anything else that's been there before. But at the same time, when you use it, it's - it totally connects the city back together again.

ULABY: The Pritzker jury cited Grafton Architects' integrity and generosity in awarding them the prize. It's gone to women before, but never to two women working together. At a time when architecture schools are more than 50% female but men still dominate the field's upper reaches, McCarter says choosing Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara is nearly as inspired as the architects themselves.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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