Grafton Architects: Generosity and Gender in Architecture
On May 25, 2018, a small protest broke out at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, arguably the largest event in the architectural community worldwide.
Approximately 150 women gathered in the heat of the Venetian fairground to demand “voices for women” in the field of architecture. Some of the most prominent women architects today—Jeanne Gang, Odile Decq, Farshid Moussavi, Martha Thorne, and Eva Franch i Gilabert—led the group, wielding folded fans and delivering a manifesto “to raise awareness to combat pervasive prejudices and disrespectful behavior that appears to be systemic in our culture and discipline.” The manifesto asserts, “Women are not a minority in the world, but women are still a minority in the architecture’s field and we want that it could reflect better the world in which we live.” Despite women being just as likely as men to study architecture—if not more likely—women are much less likely to reach their potential in practice.
Though feminists have been critiquing the discipline in force since the 1970s, Odile Decq, head of Paris-based Studio Odile Decq, called this Biennale “a crucial moment” to draw attention to the cause. This year, architects confronted #MeToo allegations, igniting calls for consciousness around equity in the architectural workplace, and that important conversation should have a place on architecture’s main stage.
The Biennale is as much a pedestal for curators to impart their philosophies about the art of architecture as a chance to reflect on the politics of the profession. The curators of this year’s Venice Biennale of architecture were Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, founding partners of Grafton Architects based in Dublin. In opening the Biennale in May, Farrell and McNamara expressed their belief in baukulture, the idea that construction and culture are intricately intertwined. They used the stage this year to profess the need for “generosity” of architecture—how buildings might afford a sense of freedom to their inhabitants, how architects might use their structures to craft meaningful experiences in “the space in which we humans stand,” and how architecture should strive to embody the spirit of the Greek proverb, “A society grows great when all men plant trees under whose shade they know they will never sit.”
Grafton’s work reflects this ethos. The practice, named for the Dublin street of its first office, has built a catalogue of buildings since its founding in 1978 that theorist and critic Mark Wigley describes as “not heavy, they’re not quiet, but they’re endlessly thoughtful.” The architects elevate humble materials—concrete, brick, cinder block—in the tradition of Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier with the public consciousness of Brazilian architects Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Lina Bo Bardi, and João Batista Vilanova Artigas, whose buildings afford large open spaces as “gifts” to passersby, accessible to all. They are not just thoughtful in their choice of materials, but also in considering the whole material economy of a building: the relationship between people, craft, and the forces that shape a sense of place where the building sits. This approach extends to buildings at all scales, from the early five-meter-wide laneway housing they designed in central Dublin to institutional buildings in Milan and Lima.
Grafton’s work is renowned for its ability to communicate at the scale of the monument—with buildings that are landmarks in the urban landscape—as much as it is for attention to the sensorial, emotive, and tactile experience of the users inside. The office’s first major commission—a massive undertaking and brilliant leap of faith for a small firm—the Università Luigi Bocconi School of Economics in Milan (2008) gracefully accommodates a bulky university building into the dense city streets of Milan. By creatively suspending offices and classrooms from above, the building offers a wide open space on the street level, like a large, covered piazza, free of columns, where students and faculty can gather. The outside of the building is covered in a skin of marble from a local quarry, creating a visual connection between the building and nearby cathedrals, but the lights from the main lecture hall illuminate the facade from within so that, as historian Kenneth Frampton describes it, the building becomes a lantern in the night, contributing to the life of the street. The building was heralded as the 2008 “World Building of the Year” at the World Architecture Festival and earned Grafton the inaugural International Prize by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2016.
With Grafton’s pervasive idealism, it’s no wonder that its UTEC “vertical campus” building in Lima, Peru (2015) was included in Carnegie Museum of Art’s 2017 exhibition, Building Optimism: Public Space in South America. While the building has been praised as a “modern day Machu Picchu,” the architects themselves envisioned the building as an “arena for learning.” The university building artfully hugs a hillside along a highway. It has the weight and presence of a stadium cast in concrete, with deep articulated bays that give the structure a sense of timelessness. Inside, however, open passageways allow students, light, and air to breeze through the building in carefully calibrated spaces between classrooms, taking advantage of an amenable climate and university culture.
As a 25-person office in Dublin, Grafton punches well above its weight in the scale and quality of projects it is commissioned to undertake. Most recently, the practice has won competitions for major buildings for The London School of Economics and Political Science (2016) and the Université Toulouse 1 Capitole (2009), which fit into the firm’s mold of university buildings that act as good citizens for the communities they serve.
Voices of Women
An acclaimed duo of women architects is hardly noteworthy in and of itself. The earliest professional partnership of women architects in the US can be dated to 1894, when Alice Hands and Mary Gannon took the country by storm, winning competitions and designing solutions for tenements in New York, among other accomplishments. Their work was published nationally under incredulous headlines such as “Young Ladies Win an Architectural Prize.” Women’s triumphs may be less shocking today, but they’re still uncommon in architecture.
The women who protested at this year’s Biennale urged increased visibility for architects from underrepresented groups. Yet despite the impassioned rhetoric of their manifesto, the tone of the protest in Venice was celebratory—and for good reason. Not only are more women overcoming obstacles to produce impactful work, but Farrell and McNamara are the first pair of women to curate the exhibition since it began in 1980.1 The duo are both decorated architects and educators, and their work offers a glimpse of a better world—cities built with thoughtful warmth and precision and an architecture profession enriched by women-led firms achieving their full creative potential, welcomed into positions of influence.
In a field that struggles to recognize, support, retain, and remember the work of architects from marginalized groups, it is a welcome change to see two women leading on this important architectural stage. It will be a still more welcome change when their gender is no longer worthy of remark.
The exhibition Growing the Collection: Architecture at CMOA is on view in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art from June 9–August 19, 2018.
- The 12th International Architecture Exhibition was curated by Tokyo-based Kazuyo Seijima, but the festival has never been curated collaboratively, let alone by two women architects. The subject of collaboration in architecture is another story. Despite being a highly collaborative profession by necessity, professional collaborations are rarely acknowledged in the profession’s top prizes. The American Institute of Architects, for example, only expanded its Gold Medal to accommodate collaborative partnerships in 2015. ↵