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Pritzker Prize 2020: Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara win renowned architecture prize

A “beacon” and “pioneers in a field that was and is traditionally a male-dominated profession” are what the jury of the 2020 Pritzker Prize described this years’ winners Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. In more ways than one, the award for the Grafton Architects founders is a strong signal for the entire international architecture industry.

Pritzker Prize 2020 for two female role models

For the first time, the 2020 Pritzker Prize has been awarded to an architecture firm in Ireland, and one led by two strong women who use their “keen powers of observation” to make buildings react both to the environment and to cities. Their talent was repeatedly highlighted by the eight-member jury when this year’s winners were announced on Tuesday, March 3. Farrell and McNamara’s buildings are considered to be “good neighbours”, who strive to make a city function better. “The dialogues they conduct between buildings and their surroundings show a new appreciation of both their works and the place,” the jury said.

Two architects set out to improve architecture

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara both studied in Dublin and founded their office "Grafton Architects" there in 1978.

Yvonne Farrell und Shelley McNamara wurden mit dem Pritzker-Preis 2020 ausgezeichnet
Achieving greatness together. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara were awarded the Pritzker Prize 2020. Source: Ivan Baan
Der UTEC Universitäts-Campus von Lima aus der Ferne.
One of the Irish architects' most famous works: The UTEC university campus of Lima. Source: Iwan Baan

They wanted to use their work to combat what they considered to be an architectural wasteland in Ireland. For Farrell and McNamara, good architecture is about creating places that transform into something special through the clever use of light, space, materials and proportions.

Accordingly, the two architects’ designs are always characterised by a certain affinity to the place. Like sculptors, they prefer to create geometric sculptures from stone and concrete. These creations don’t necessarily serve a purpose themselves but do serve people.

Award-winning buildings in more than 40 years Grafton Architects

Besides residential and cultural buildings, Grafton Architects also specialises in educational institutions. Particularly in Ireland, Farrell and

McNamara have brought many university and school buildings to life. On the international stage, they’ve also won prestigious contracts in countries such as Italy, France and Peru. After 40 years, the Pritzker Prize winners can look back on almost as many completed buildings as the long list of architectural awards they’ve received.

Among their most famous works are the Luigi Bocconi University in Milan, named by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) as “World’s Best Building” in 2008, and the UTEC University Campus of Lima, awarded the RIBA International Prize in 2016. More recently, the two architects received a RIBA Royal Gold Metal, the highest architectural award in the UK.

Seitenansicht der Universita Luigi Bocconi
Much like sculptors, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara prefer to create geometric shapes from stone and concrete. Source: Federico Brunetti

Pritzker Prize 2020 honours the cooperation of a strong duo

Since the founding of Grafton Architects, Farrell and McNamara have consistently demonstrated their ability to work as a team. They have developed ideas on an equal footing and have found that supporting one another can be an enrichment. The Pritzker Prize jury also recognized this “belief in collaboration”, as well as the “generosity towards their

colleagues” that Farrell and McNamara had also shown as curators of the 2018 Architecture Biennale in Venice.

As Pritzker Prize winners, Farrell and McNamara follow in the footsteps of renowned, but predominantly male master builders. Alongside Zaha Hadid and Kazuyo Sejima, who won the prestigious award in 2010 together with her partner Ryue Nishizawa, the Grafton founders are the only women in the ancestral gallery of the international award to date.

Prikter Prize 2020 red brick building.
Pritzker Prize 2020 architectural interior
Pritzker Prize 2020 cultural building

Renowned architecture prize with tradition and international appeal

The Pritzker Prize is known as the “Nobel Prize of Architecture”. Traditionally, it is endowed with 100,000 (around 90,000 euro). It was established in Chicago in 1979 by the Hyatt Foundation, and has since been awarded annually to contemporary architects who make significant contributions to people and the environment with their architecture.

In 2019, the Pritzker Prize went to Arata Isozaki, who is considered Japan's most influential architect of the post-war period.


Industry giants such as Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuren, Norman Foster and I.M. Pei (who died last year), have also been winners of this coveted architecture prize.

With Farrell and McNamara, the number of female award winners has now doubled at a stroke. Thus the Pritzker Prize 2020 is not only an award for outstanding achievements in architecture, but also a sign of equality and appreciation of female talents in the industry.

Do you know other buildings by Grafton Architects? Let us know in the comments.

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