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Brutalismus 2.0 – Portrait of Grafton Architects

Using precise, composed volumes with a neobrutalist appearance, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara from Grafton Architects, based in Dublin, have succeeded in creating a striking combination of urban presence and surprising spatial qualities. The two architects won the coveted RIBA International Prize in 2016 for their design of the recently opened Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) in Lima. The pair will be curating the 16th Architecture Biennale in Venice next year.

With an unapologetic architectural style that celebrates the materials used and plays with the legacy of brutalism with virtuosity, the projects from Grafton Architects have been striking a chord among architecture critics, clients and the public in equal measure for years. The architectural practice, which was co-founded in 1978 by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara and now employs around 25 people, has focused on schools and educational buildings from the beginning – predominantly in Ireland at first, but now far beyond the country’s borders as well.

The architects’ most recent project is the world-renowned UTEC university campus in Lima, Peru. The building lies close to the Pacific coast, where you are met with an impressive, soaring concrete sculpture that tapers upwards and integrates a cleverly interwoven, vertical university environment over twelve floors. Confronting the northbound city motorway, the construction is a mighty building front with a rhythmic, pulsating megastructure covered by an imposing roof construction that rests on diagonally protruding partition walls. By way of contrast, it descends southwards with leafy terraces towards an adjacent residential area. Other unusual elements of the newbuild include the galleries, bridges and staircases that are located to the north of the various lecture halls and offices and are half-open to the outside space. They are connected to the visible load-bearing structure to form a virtuous whole, creating myriad meeting places in the process. With the interplay of the diff erent elements in this construction project, the architects have succeeded in creating a completely new type of university campus that impressively showcases the design qualities of the architectural practice.

Grafton Architects: Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara

Finished in 2002, the newbuild for Trinity College Dublin is an example of a completely diff erent solution. In order to create a modern but respectful extension to the existing 19th Century university campus, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara developed an intricately twisting, geometric figure made from light natural stone, which coils sinuously around the existing brick building. The surprising contrast of materials also played an important role in the Solstice Arts Centre theatre newbuild, opened in 2006 in Navan, Ireland, where a heavy volume of darkgrey concrete »fl oats« over a continuously glazed base.

»The development of an efficient load-bearing structure gives us a great deal of freedom when it comes to the room arrangement,« explain Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. »The actual space is the cavity that emerges between the solid building units.« A good example of this strategy is Milan’s Università Luigi Bocconi, which was completed back in 2008. Using the busy urban canyon in the centre of the city as a basis, the architects developed a complex that is closed externally on the right, split horizontally into different volumes and rests on a joint substructure. The building’s façades are made from ceppo, a grainy sedimentary rock, and are structured on the inside by means of an open labyrinth of atriums, bridges, hanging gardens, terraces and staircases. In the centre stands the auditorium, which lies fi ve metres underground and is connected to the immediately adjacent street via the large glass façade on the ground floor.

With the UTEC university campus in Lima, Peru, Grafton has succeeded in creating a new type of university campus.

»The Bocconi building is the result of our years of consideration surrounding the subject of the city and the meaning of universities in an urban framework,« say the two architects, describing the signifi cance of the building within their own work. They have been able to directly use this extensive experience in two current newbuild projects for the Université Toulouse and the London School of Economics. Amidst all of this, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are also curating the 16th Architecture Biennale 2018 in Venice next year. »Using the ›freespace‹ approach, we want to place humanity at the core of architecture and create a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived,« the pair explains. »Beyond the architectural business, it should be about the role of architecture with its interplay of light, shadows, wind and gravity in the choreography of daily life.« We wait with bated breath.

Surprising contrasts of glass and concrete – the Solstice Arts Centre theatre newbuild in Navan, Ireland.
The extension for Trinity College in Dublin is an intricately twisting figure made from light natural stone that coils around the existing brick building.

Words: Robert Uhde
Photos: Ros Kavanagh, Iwan Baan