The U.K.’s professional architecture association, the Royal Institute of British Architects, has named Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey of the Dublin-based firm O’Donnell + Tuomey as the recipients of the 2015 Royal Gold Medal, the organization’s prestigious lifetime achievement award. This year’s recipients are notable on a couple fronts. Just two other husband-and-wife duos have received the prize previously. Born in 1953 and 1954, respectively, O’Donnell and Tuorney are also some of the youngest recipients ever. (Last year’s prize went to 87-year-old architecture critic Joseph Rykwert.)
In a citation explaining RIBA’s choice, Rykwert and architect Níall McLaughlin herald the couple’s commitment to teaching and writing as well as their desire to create a new identity for Irish architecture through their built work. “Their work is evolving and open to experiment, with the best individual projects coming as quieter reflections on their noisier ideas,” McLaughlin writes.
O’Donnell and Tuomey founded their architectural practice in 1988, and since then, five of their projects have been shortlisted for RIBA’s Stirling Prize, an award given for the greatest single contribution to the evolution of architecture in the U.K. or the European Union by a RIBA-accredited architect in a given year. Their style, McLaughlin observes, has moved throughout the lifetime of their practice from Neoclassical to “a boisterous Constructivism.” Many of their recent projects, including the gorgeous Lyric Theater in Belfast and a grandly geometric student center at the London School of Economics, make graceful use of red brick and timber.
The Royal Gold Medal is a prize given to a person or group of people whose work has had significant influence “either directly or indirectly on the advancement of architecture,” according to RIBA. The award is predominantly given to architects, but past recipients have also included engineers, architecture critics, and once, a city (Barcelona). The recipients are personally approved by the Queen herself, because, you know, such are the joys of monarchy.
The field of architecture has been notoriously reticent to recognize the achievements of its many women practitioners. While O’Donnell’s recognition demonstrates a worthy step forward, she’s only the third woman to receive the Royal Gold Medal, and no woman has yet won without an accompanying male partner. RIBA’s state-side equivalent, the American Institute of Architects, has an even worse record: only one woman has ever received the AIA Gold Medal (she had been dead for five decades by the time they got around to it). And controversially, only two women have received the Pritzker Prize, one of whom shared the honor with her male partner.