I meet Shelley McNamara on the cobblestones of Dublin Castle. Her work partner Yvonne Farrell is running a bit late. They are about to speak at a Creative Ireland conference, have a visiting delegation over from the Venice Architecture Biennale, which they are curating, and will be flying to Venice the following week. This is alongside their day-to-day practice which celebrates 40 years in existence this year. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that Shelley has forgotten to remember this milestone when I remind her.
However, her friendship and working relationship with Yvonne, which reaches a career-peak high in May, dates back even further to the late sixties when they first met as undergrads in the UCD. They benefited from what they describe as a “belief” in architecture: the power of the possible. They also benefited from the radicalised students of that time who were hell-bent on shaking up antiquated methods of teaching. The world was changing and Dublin should change too.
“UCD had undergone radical transformation,” recounts Shelley. “We benefited from the likes of Ruairi Quinn and those who were out on the streets demonstrating. We benefited from the Flying Circus, tutors who came from London and they were like the Rolling Stones, they were so radical and so terrific. They were really good communicators and they were building.”
Emboldened by this belief and confidence, upon graduation they met the brick wall of a somewhat staid reality. Many applications went unopened and this forced them to plough their own furrow. They set up the practice together with Tony Murphy, Shay Cleary and Frank Hall, the latter bringing experience to the table.
In the world of ‘Starchitects’ with global outposts from New York to Beijing, the grounding of Grafton has literally been on Grafton Street where they found the office above Weirs Jewellers in which they have remained to this day. Yvonne was originally looking for an apartment when she stumbled upon it.
“We took ‘place’ as the thing that held us together and over time that has embedded in parallel with the work,” she says. “There was also the idea of being a cooperative and architecture being a collaborative affair rather than a single person.” This is something both of them are at pains to point out throughout our conversation. Their arrival at this pinnacle has come with the gift of knowledge and wisdom imparted by colleagues over the last 40-plus years. “It really is about having the right team at the right time to do the right job. It is something that isn’t celebrated enough in architecture — the sense of commitment, loyalty and patience.” says Shelley.
And an assumption that this moment might be somehow gifted to them without some dark days is also worth exploring.
“The business of an architect isn’t normal. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” says Shelley. “When the boom was happening we had two house extensions and a lot of people. And then no other work came. And then the crash came. There have been dramatic moments of horror and fear.”
Indeed grappling with stress is something they have become more adept at with time. But it does exist and has existed.
“It is stressful. I think the muscles in your stomach become very hard. I remember feeling ill many times waking up in the middle of the night,” reflects Shelley. When I enquire as to whether this related to financial issues or impending deadlines, she interjects. “It could be a house leaking and an irate client on Sunday night at nine o’clock or hot water coming out of the toilet and cold water coming out of the shower. It took us a while. We forget now. You get used to it. I found it extraordinary difficult in the beginning.”
Yvonne is quick to point out that they are also somewhat philosophical about that fact that “nobody died”. Watching this genial duo interact is to bear witness to a masterclass in friendship and knowingness. They are polite and cordial — blessed with the skills that a lifetime of teaching has brought them with an easy ability to interact, engage and be curious. There’s also more than a hint of mischief to both of them which I can’t quite pinpoint but am assured it it bubbles beneath their poised exteriors.
And so to December 16th, 2016, when the call came through from Paolo Baratta. After the initial shock, there was oddly a moment of hesitance. “We can go very quiet very sudden as an office. That can happen to any office. There is no such thing as a secure stream of work. But it just so happened that four of our projects had gone on site at the same time. And none of them were small,” explains Shelley.
Of course, this moment quickly passed and they were on a flight from Switzerland, where they lecture to Venice, by the 20th. They had even locked down their theme on the flight home. “We hit on the idea of Freespace on the flight on the way back. And then developed it when we came back from the break. What’s interesting as an architect is when you are doing a comp. sometimes there’s a sprint and sometimes there’s a marathon. And for a competiton, you sprint. You take what’s in the air and run. And the Biennale was a bit like that,” says Shelley.
But Freespace is more than that. It’s also the crystallisation of their ‘beliefs’ and values.
“What it related to is us trying to list our values and that was a very interesting thing to do,” according to Yvonne. “The manifesto is a value system, an architectural litany, a checklist of how you might view the earth. We chose Freespace as one word so it had a sense of generosity and was also spatial. By putting them together, what we are saying is as a profession we are commissioned, we are not like artists who can do things on their own. Somebody has saved the money and dreamt the dream and we translate from need into space. Freespace is the extra ingredient that has never been thought of before. It is the gift as a result of the endeavour as a profession.”
Shelley adds: “That’s the thing that’s hard to find — the space to reach beyond the limit of expectations. It’s like hitting harmony in music. It’s hard to hit architecture. When somebody walks into a space and they are moved, or surprised or enriched. To make a space that does that as opposed to one where you just feel comfortable and warm, you have to hit some other note is the thing that’s often unreachable but desirable and necessary.”
It is with this informed and generous take on their curation, that they will view the assembled ideas from people and practices all over the globe this May. The Cordorie alone is the length of O’Connell Street and their selection and ‘belief’ in participants will no doubt give others the lucky break they have benefitted from also.
This came in advance of the Biennale in the form of winning a competition for the design of the Luigi Bocconi University in Milan. It was named World Building of the Year back in 2008 and praised as a “”magical subterranean realm” by its judges.
“We had never done a project on that scale but there was belief and luck and one thing leading to another.” Indeed this roll call of projects has made their thumbprint global taking in The Marshall Building for the London School of Economics as well as the university campus for UTEC in Lima.
“In Bocconi it was amazing standing in this incredibly strong structure which 3.6 meters wide with every 25 meters repeated and repeated. When the sunlight hits it in a certain way the structure dissolves visibly. Models were made and studies were made but the spatial complexity was much more animated than we imagined,” reflects Yvonne.
Closer to home, Grafton Architects have a more modest impact on our built environment with the Offices for the Department of Finance on Merrion Row being their best known output. However, this is set to change with two major projects coming on stream namely the development of the Dublin City Library in Parnell Square and the redevelopment of the ESB headquarters on Fitzwilliam Street.
“We have this gem of a building the Hugh Lane Gallery sitting there. You have this terrace waiting for it to become a draw. It will become a magnet. Libraries are probably one of the most radical spaces.
Librarians are so radical because they are at the cutting edge of what society is. It is one of the last freespaces in society. It will be one of the highest spaces in the city facing the Dublin Mountains. That whole space is waiting for belief,” says Yvonne with an impassioned belief you cannot but believe in.
In terms of the more controversial ESB site which saw 16 original Georgian houses removed in the 1960s for the modernist facade, Yvonne is also diplomatically polite in her assessment of the work of original architects Sam Stephenson and Arthur Gibney. “It was quite a fine building of its time where they were trying to deal with the rhythm of its elongated facade.”
Now Grafton Architects are looking to “modify and stitch back” this space into the city. “It takes themes and crafting of earlier times and we’re trying to weave it in together. We’ve intensified the block but held on to the nature of the street as a container. We are threading landscape into the form of the building, creating a pleasure garden and new public route.”
Routes to entry is something they are keenly aware of for those within their profession too. Knowing that they now occupy a somewhat exalted status, they know the process of belief which lead to it also. The tendering process is a particular bugbear with the problem of being unable to build a school unless you’ve built a school which precludes many.
“Young architects aren’t given a chance because of way tenders are written, the way the structure of allowing and participating exists. It needs to be thought at a societal level because otherwise it is grouping and ultimately not enriching.”
“We say architecture is a silent language which speaks. It has a resonance with another person.” says Yvonne. But it is not just architecture which commands this unspoken magic. Witnessing the flow and ease of understanding with which they articulate their passionate ideas and compassion for their profession, cemented by a true friendship shows that note that they strive for within their work has been truly found between themselves.
The Biennale Architettura 2018 runs from 26 May to November 25 in Venice.
Freespace is the theme selected by Yvonne and Shelley for the 16th international Biennale of Architecture in Venice. This is how they have chosen to define it.
Freespace describes a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself.
Freespace focuses on architecture’s ability to provide free and additional spatial gifts to those who use it and on its ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers.
Freespace celebrates architecture’s capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project – even within the most private, defensive, exclusive or commercially restricted conditions.
Freespace provides the opportunity to emphasise nature’s free gifts of light — sunlight and moonlight, air, gravity, materials — natural and man-made resources.
Freespace encourages reviewing ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world, of inventing solutions where architecture provides for the well being and dignity of each citizen of this fragile planet.
Freespace can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived. There is an exchange between people and buildings that happens, even if not intended or designed, so buildings themselves find ways of sharing and engaging with people over time, long after the architect has left the scene.
Architecture has an active as well as a passive life.
Freespace encompasses freedom to imagine, the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.
These are a few things which inspire Yvonne and Shelley
“I love City Hall. The circular space in off the street. It used to be a place of exchange and open to the city. It still feels open and I really love it. It’s like a piazza and we actually based our Dublin City library on it because it’s 15m diameter and about 20m high and we thought if we could make a space like that at the back of the building on Parnell Square. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to make something of that scale in the city which would feel the citizens of the city were rushing through it.” – Shelley
“I always put on Handel’s Messiah at this time of year and think it’s an amazing piece of work and i love that fact that it’s first airing was just down the road on Fishamble Street. It’s a marvellous piece of work.” – Yvonne
LINA BO BARDI
“I saw her work last November, she’s an Italian architect who moved to Brazil who built the most astonishing buildings I’ve seen in the 20th century. They are amazingly radical, fresh and brave architecture that kind of shakes you and makes you think ‘Oh My God!, we are just scratching the surface’.” – Shelley
“These were desert platforms made by individual bricks. You can see the handprint of people on them and they are sacred gathering places. What is amazing about them is they are just one material and nothing at one level but then there’s their symbolism, layering and cultural value. I find those things moving because they are between landscape and building, of human mountain and collective endeavour, monumental but not aggressive – soft monuments with a sense of people instead of power.” – Yvonne
Seán Ó Riada
“There’s something very primal in his influence. We keep coming back to this, if we could touch that note in architecture and hit that primal memory as well as make something new. That would be fantastic. That’s what we felt he did with music. In some ways you recognise it but it’s fresh.” – Yvonne and Shelley
Words: Michael McDermott
Main photo: Ste Murray
Exhibition Venue Corderie, Arsenale, Venice Photo by Giulio Squillacciotti, Courtesy La Beinnale de Venezia
New University of Engineering Campus UTEC Lima – Grafton Architects
“A Place To Discover – the Great Hall Of The Library” – Grafton Architects
Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell curators of the Biennale Architettura 2018 and Paolo Baratta President of La Beinnale de Venezia Photo by Andea Avezzu, Courtesy La Beinnale de Venezia