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Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara: Winners of the Pritzker Architecture Prize 2020

Pritzker Architecture Prize

This year, Pritzker Architecture Prize, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Architecture”, has been granted to Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. The two women, who are the directors of the Dublin-based Grafton Architects, are the first Irish nationals to receive this honor. They’re also the fourth and fifth women to win the award, following other geniuses like Zaha Hadid, Kazuyo Sejima, Ryue Nishizawa, and Carme Pigem.


“For their integrity in their approach to both their buildings, as well as the way they conduct their practice, their belief in collaboration, their generosity towards their colleagues,” the 2020 Pritzker Jury states in a written statement about why the Farrell and McNamara were chosen this year.

The award statement added, “[T]heir unceasing commitment to excellence in architecture, their responsible attitude toward the environment, their ability to be cosmopolitan while embracing the uniqueness of each place in which they work, for all these reasons and more, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are awarded the 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize.”

Early Careers: Coming of Age in Ireland in the 1970s

Yvonne Farrell (b. 1951) and Shelley McNamara (b. 1952) met as architecture students at University College Dublin during the 1970s. In 1978, they founded the Grafton Architects, with three other partners, who are no longer affiliated with the firm.

While many architects name their firms after themselves, Grafton Architects got its name from the street of their first office. This choice was intentional, and one that reflects the ethos of 2020’s Pritzker Architecture Prize winners: Farrell and McNamara wanted to communicate the importance of places, rather than individuals.

The Irish Times describes the 1970s as a “decade of upheaval” in Ireland due to the ongoing political violence and economic troubles in Irish territories. Hence, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara studied under rationalists who often had harsh approaches to design and architecture. However, young architects like Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara were the bellwether of change to bring a softer and generous approach to buildings.

Since their graduation from the University College Dublin in 1976, the duo continued to teach and raise new generations. To this day, they take their roles as educators as seriously as their responsibilities as architects.

“Teaching for us has always been a parallel reality,” commented Farrell, upon receiving the award.

“And it’s a way of trying to distill our experience and gift it to other generations coming along so that they actually play a role in the growing of that culture. So it’s a two way thing, we learn from students and hopefully students learn from us.”

The 1990s and beyond: Notable Works

Pritzker Architecture Prize
Université Toulouse 1 Capitole in France © Dennis Gilbert

As the Irish economy started to take off in the 1990s, the demand for new buildings also grew. In 1996, the 2020 Pritzker winners completed an engineering department for the Trinity College in Dublin.

Since then, educational buildings are among some of the most notable works of Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.

Their portfolio features an extensive collection of significant cultural and academic projects that made a mark in Ireland, like the Urban Institute of Ireland, University College Dublin (2002); Solstice Arts Centre (Navan, Ireland 2007); Loreto Community School in Milford (2006); and Medical School, University of Limerick (2012).

While Farrell and McNamara contributed to the educational landscape in Ireland with stunning buildings, their excellence with designing educational institutions exceeded the Irish borders. They designed other award-winning buildings for universities abroad, such as the Université Toulouse 1 Capitole in France (2019); University Campus UTEC Lima in Peru (2015); and Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan, Italy (2008).

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are currently working on a large-scale urban campus extension project for the London School of Economics in the United Kingdom.

The 2020s and the Future: Privilege of Architecture

According to McNamara, architecture is “a framework for human life” and something that “anchors us and connects us to the world.”

After bagging the highest honor in architecture, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara had an excellent start to the new decade.

Even though they felt honored, 2020 Pritzker winners say the prize won’t change their plans to keep working as architects and educators.

Architecture could be described as one of the most complex and important cultural activities on the planet. To be an architect is an enormous privilege. To win this prize is a wonderful endorsement of our belief in architecture.

Yvonne Farrell, 2020 Pritzker winners

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