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Architecture’s top prize finally acknowledges women designers

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara have been awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize. Until this year, only three women had won the award.

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Women have developed an intimate understanding of the spaces we occupy, thanks to the expectations patriarchy has placed upon us. Given how closely women have been associated with the domestic space in particular, it’s hardly surprising that some of the strongest interior designers—and architects—have not been men. From Greta Magnusson Grossman’s functional midcentury furniture to Zaha Hadid’s undulating facades, women’s design has pushed boundaries and shattered conventions, even when the industry often lets those efforts go unrecognized. Case in point: In the Pritzker Architecture Prize’s 41-year history, only three women have won. Until this year.

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Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. [Photo: courtesy Pritzker Architecture Prize]
Announced today, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Dublin, Ireland, have become the fourth and fifth women to win the prestigious international architecture award. The two laureates, who are cofounders of the Dublin-based firm Grafton Architects, are known for their striking, concrete-clad residential, commercial, and civic buildings, which can be seen across Europe. The duo became renowned for the design of the economics building at Bocconi University’s Milan campus in 2008; the academic institution, marked by subterranean teaching spaces and a generous use of glass, was named World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival.

Grafton Architects also won the RIBA International Prize in 2016 for the firm’s design of Lima, Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology. The jagged, organic form of the building mirrors Lima’s nearby coastal cliffs and the rocky geography of their native Ireland.

University Campus UTEC Lima [Photo: Iwan Baan/courtesy Pritzker Architecture Prize]

Farrell and McNamara’s buildings are imposing, but humane; they often dominate city centers, thanks to their stone material (and sheer size), but they’re designed to give visitors breathing room through light and air. “What we try to do in our work is to be aware of the various levels of citizenship and try to find an architecture that deals with overlap, that heightens your relationship to one another,” Farrell said in a statement.

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Nearly half of all architecture students are women. But in the upper echelons of the profession, they’re wildly underrepresented; only 17% of the partners or principals at architecture firms are women. Farrell and McNamara’s victory—which awards them a shared $100,000—is an important step forward for the industry and its celebration of architecture designed by women.