Grafton Architects win European prize for contemporary architecture

Grafton Architects, the firm led by Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, has won the European Union prize for contemporary architecture, the Mies Van der Rohe award 2022. One of the most prestigious architecture awards in Europe, it has been awarded for Grafton’s design of Town House Kingston University London, which was chosen from among 532 works submitted for the award from 41 countries.

They are the first Irish architects to win the award, and this is the first time a university building has won it. Town House includes the university’s main library and archive, dance studios, a theatre, adaptable learning spaces, and two cafes.

Grafton’s Mies Van der Rohe win was announced at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday and the award will be presented to McNamara and Farrell on May 12th at the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion in Barcelona.

Farrell said they were “over the moon” and delighted with the award on behalf of everyone in Grafton Architects. “We have a fantastic team who are dedicated to designing beautiful buildings that deliver on their purpose.” McNamara said Kingston University had bought into their vision for Town House and were “true partners” on the project. “We designed the six-storey Town House to act as the university’s ‘front door’. We wanted to create a space which was inviting and welcoming to the local community and which fostered collaboration within its walls.”

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. Photograph: Ste Murray
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. Photograph: Ste Murray

The judges said Town House created “an excellent atmosphere for studying, dancing, gathering and being together. The building creates an emotional experience from within and through the multi-level façade colonnade that creates a domestic atmosphere on different levels. It accommodates dance, library and study spaces using layers of silence and layers of sound which work perfectly well together.”

For Grafton Architects, co-founded in 1978 by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, this joins a string of international awards, including both the RIBA Royal Gold Medal and the Pritzker Prize (considered the highest honour in architecture) in 2020, and in 2021 the RIBA Stirling prize and an Architectural Association of Ireland Award for the Town House, as well as the L’Equerre d’Argent in France, for the Toulouse School of Economics.

Unfortunately for Dublin, it looks like Grafton’s home city will not see its impressive plans come to fruition for a new Dublin City Library on Parnell Square – originally set to be the linchpin of a planned Parnell Square Cultural Quarter.

The project, dating back to 2015, included Grafton Architects, conservation experts Shaffrey Architects and a multidisciplinary design team. Plans were unveiled in 2018 for the ambitious cultural landmark for Dublin, originally set for a handover to Dublin City Council in 2023. Planning permission was granted but in February 2022 it was reported Dublin City Council (DCC) had terminated the design team’s contract. This followed sustained problems securing finance for the project. DCC confirmed the landmark City Library project at Parnell Square has been delayed until 2027.

Town House Kingston University London. Photograph: Alice Clancy
Town House Kingston University London. Photograph: Alice Clancy

Organised by the European Union and the Fundació Mies van der Rohe, the prize announced this week is awarded biennially to the best architecture project completed in Europe in the past two years. Congratulating Grafton Architects on the Mies Van der Rohe award this week, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, said they had “demonstrated the creative and innovative potential of European architecture. It is particularly encouraging to see the contribution of contemporary architecture to improving the well-being of citizens in Europe like we are also doing with the New European Bauhaus.”

The Mies van der Rohe judges added “there is a need for public educational projects with the quality of this one, which dignifies people’s lives through education and being together and gives the same educational possibilities to everybody.”

Grafton Architects have a strong expertise in educational buildings and two others – Institute Mines Télécom in Paris and Toulouse School of Economics in Toulouse – were nominated for 2022 EUmies Awards, while University Luigi Bocconi in Milan was a finalist in 2009.

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