Two women from Dublin have been award the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the first time the prestigious prize has been awarded to two women.

Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell met as architecture students at University College Dublin the mid-1970s, NPR reports. They opened their Dublin firm, Grafton Architects, 42 years ago, along with three others.

"Our name, Grafton Architects, comes from the street where we set up our first office, on Grafton Street," said McNamara. "And we were a group of five architects, and we had this idea of making a collective practice, so we called ourselves after the street. So we are anchored in our own place and our own culture."

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Of the five original partners, only Farrell and McNamara stayed with the firm. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when the Irish economy started taking off, that their firm began making an impact. They designed a building at Trinity College in Dublin, as well as houses and schools, and helped transform Dublin’s Temple Bar Square. 

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Urban Institute of Ireland, Dublin. Photo credit: Ros Kavanagh

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In 2003, the firm won an international competition to design the school of economics at the  Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan. The building, which was completed in 2008, was named World Building of the Year at the inaugural World Architecture Festival that year. The achievement launched Grafton Architects as a leading designer of university buildings. 

The firm was the recipient of the 2012 Biennale di Venezia Silver Lion Award for the exhibition, Architecture as New Geography. They received rave reviews for their curation of the world’s largest architecture exhibition, at the 2018 the Venice Biennale, with the theme FREESPACE.  In 2019, they were awarded the RIAI James Gandon Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture and in 2020, the RIBA Royal Gold Medal.

In addition to being designers, Farrell and McNamara have also worked as professors throughout their careers. Upon graduating from UCD in 1976, they were each offered the opportunity to teach at the university, where they continued to educate until 2006. They were appointed as adjunct professors in 2015.

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Universita Luigi Bocconi, Milan, Italy Photo credit: Federico Brunetti

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“Teaching for us has always been a parallel reality,” said Farrell. “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.”

Only three other women have won the Pritzker Architecture Prize previously — Zaha Hadid in 2004, Kazuyo Sejima in 2010 (with Ryue Nishizawa) and Carme Pigem in 2017 (with Ramón Vilalta and Rafael Aranda). This year marks the first time two women have been awarded the prize together.

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Sarah Whiting, dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design. called Farrell and McNamara’s selection “satisfying.”

Whiting, who calls their style "forthright" and "beefy," said “They're phenomenally good architects.”

She added that this year's Pritzker selection reflects the reality for the profession today. "The field of architecture has a lot of women in it right now. The schools have been 50% women for, oh, 20-25 years."