Interview with Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects

"Architecture is a process of translation"

John Hill
16. May 2022
Shelley McNamara (left) and Yvonne Farrell at the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion on EUmies Awards Day. (Photo: Anna Mas)

World-Architects editor John Hill was in Barcelona for EUmies Awards Day last week, sitting down with Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects in the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion one day after they received the trophy for Town House – Kingston University. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

You just came from La Borda [the cooperative housing project in Barcelona designed by Lacol and the Emerging Architecture Winner]. What did you think of it?

Yvonne Farrell (YF): It's fantastic, full of life, inspirational. When we go to other places we’re scavenging for ideas because we have a housing crisis in our country. And one of the things that's really interesting from their point of view is that view of how life can be, how they change people and policy, how they get funding, how they then work in terms of administering themselves, how they set it up. There is, if you like, a radical political embeddedness in it, which is a tradition I think comes from this country: we're in a city of 3 million people where they don't take no for an answer. And it shows that the amount of energy the architects involved had to commit to make the project is phenomenal; that's probably not a cost, in a financial way, but that's what holds a project like it together. So it's a seed idea which we hope to learn from because it's full of life and they're learning each time they do another project. It’s fantastic, I think.

Shelley McNamara (SM): What Yvonne was saying about the investment by the architects, the budget was under a thousand euro per square meter. But you can see in every detail that they've considered and thought about it, even if it's very rudimentary; it's economical, but not cheap. It's just a lovely place to be. It's really well considered at so many different levels. You can see the skill of these architects in their first building: it's fresh, it's caring, they care about the details. It's rough in places, but not where it matters. And built into that is the energy that they have for this way of living. We were asking them about how the cooperative works and they said they have different people who deal with different issues: the architecture, the mechanics, the legalities, the maintenance. And then they have the "conviviality group," the people who deal with disputes. The fact that they call it conviviality, I think, is fantastic because they're the group that has to monitor disputes so that conviviality wins.

La Borda cooperative housing by Lacol in Barcelona. (Photo © Institut Municipal de l'Habitatge i Rehabilitació de Barcelona)

YF: We asked, “what does La Borda mean?” It’s to do with the area [La Bordeta], but it also comes from those modest places, those sheds in the Alps where you can stay and leave it clean and then go to another. I think, philosophically, that's what's really amazing about the place, that they left an archway to connect in urban planning terms, not just in built terms. They've connected an existing route across the street to bring you underneath the building, out to the interior of the block that’s going to be a park.

SM: And they're leaving it open, it's not defensive. They're entrusting their own community to respect whatever it is that will be made there. Cities are very defensive now, there's a lot of fear in cities. Well, in Dublin there's a lot of poverty and a lot of drugs and people are fearful. But here they're opening up their own building so they can enter it from the street or from the park, from what’s going to be a park. 

It actually reminds me, we have always been fond of the work of Vilanova Artigas and other architects in Brazil. They made the school of architecture in São Paulo [Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism, University of São Paulo (FAU-USP)]. I remember, because we studied the work of Paulo Mendes da Rocha for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012. When we met him in São Paulo after we had studied his work and told him we were going to see the school of architecture the following day, he said: “Remember, no door. No door.” And when I came home, I looked up the period when that was built and the history at the time – and [Lina] Bo Bardi was the same – there was a radical resistance to the repressive governments that had gone before and after. And it's extraordinary when architects do that, because they believe in their people. They believe in humanity and, I suppose, cultivating the positive sides of humanity.

On my visit to the La Borda I found it interesting how the building is very hands-on in terms of the residents needing to cooperate with the climatic aspects of the building, not just the social ones. So when it's a sunny summer day, they need to pull their shades down and open the windows and doors. Or in the winter they do the opposite to warm up the concrete slabs with the sun and get that radiant heat at night. But if one resident doesn’t do what’s needed, everybody notices and kind of suffers.

YF: What's really important about what you're saying is that people actually have to take sustainability into their own everyday life. It's not like you go into a building and it is a kind of a neutral thing that just solves the problem when you turn on a switch. This morning when we were there, we were asking about the extremes, because it goes up to 40 degrees Celsius sometimes, and the humidity is high for about a week in the year. It can be very, very uncomfortable, they were saying. But this makes you realize that global warming is a reality, and that you need to open those vents, you need to have them. And here we have the privilege of sitting in the Barcelona Pavilion, and there's a breeze from the sea and the curtains behind you are blowing gently in the wind, and it's extremely pleasant because we are in shadow. We talked yesterday about architecture being built skin; that really is the outer crust of who we are as creatures.

UTEC - Universidad de Ingeneria Y Technologia by Grafton Architects. (Photo: Iwan Baan)

When I toured La Borda and the architects spoke about the tall ceilings – done so the hot air is above your head and ventilates through high windows and transoms – I thought of older houses in the United States, pre-air conditioning, that had tall rooms for the same reason. It seems that there is going to be – I hope – more and more learning from such vernacular buildings as opposed to iconic contemporary projects. There were the Mendes de Rocha models at the Biennale that you mentioned, and in yesterday’s talk you showed slides of much older, traditional buildings as precedents for the Town House. How do precedents work in your office, how do you determine which ones are appropriate, say, for Kingston or another project?

SM: Our client put together a video for this award with some of our very early proposals for Kingston, and it was lovely to see them because he chose things that we didn't choose. And one of them was a big image of what we call our “ideas wall.” It's a risk showing something like that to a client because it's confusion; it's just a bit of everything. And the way that we work, I suppose, is to invite people to offer ideas of what they think would be relevant – and that can vary from the most ancient, rudimentary reference to the most contemporary, the most ridiculous or sublime. I found it interesting looking at the ideas wall for Kingston yesterday, because I haven't looked at it for a long time and it had lots of fragments. We don't approach a project completely rationally; it's intuition and us trying to see what should the building feel like and what kind of place should it be. So it's not just about the organization.

For instance, in Lima, we really enjoyed the idea of making something like a football stadium for a university, because we were in Lima and we needed to make a vertical university [UTEC - Universidad de Ingeneria Y Technologia]. And then we started to think about an arena for learning, which really kind of broke the typology and liberated us too. And Paulo Mendes da Rocha came into that as well because we were looking at his football stadium. We always found the undercroft of the stadium a kind of haunting image; once we'd seen it, we couldn't let it go. So it's very wide ranging, initially, and open, and then we have to try and put some manners on it, let's say, or try and find some construct which brings these very diverse ideas and possibilities together.

I'm thinking of that great American documentary filmmaker [Frederick Wiseman] – his first documentary was about prisons for convicts with disabilities and he made one about the New York Public Library – he's wonderful and we met him in Venice because he won the Golden Lion the year before we did the Biennale. We were talking with him about the library film because we were working on a library. He never prepares or researches a place before he goes, but he spends ages editing. And we're a bit like that. I mean, we do research things, but we we're also open to things coming from outside. And we're more and more interested in the things you're talking about, how historically common sense and vernacular buildings eliminating or reducing technology is half the battle.

Town House – Kingston University by Grafton Architects. (Photo © Ed Reeve)

YF: One of the things we refer to is that architecture is a process of translation. There's a wonderful play by Brian Friel called Translations, which is set in the 18th century (he was a 20th-century playwright), in a time when British surveyors came to Ireland to map out the country. They take the sound of the Irish language phonetically, but they lose the meaning; they take the sound but not what the place names were actually describing. So it's about loss of meaning. And it's also about how you find meaning. And I think that that's what we're very conscious of as architects, that we're translating need into space. So it's a form of translation.

I think that that's what architecture is about: it's trying to take a need, which is building or just keeping the rain out, and then trying to find those other ingredients. That's something we like to talk about: transforming the ordinary. Like that lovely project that we've been to this morning and you've seen before, it's about trying to transform the ordinary into a new sense of … It's interesting because the aesthetic there is actually kind of "tumbly"; it's like being in a washing machine. It's not a refined aesthetic. It's not about the visual. It's actually about life: kids going up the stairs and bicycles as you enter. It's kind of a form of disciplined chaos, which is really very beautiful, like being in a really kind of crazy play. It's not architecture trying to tame you down. That's something maybe we can describe for the project in Kingston, where it was really a matter of stepping back and making something in which things can happen as opposed to architecture having that kind of dominant “You are in a piece of architecture.”

SM: That was risky for us actually, because we're quite expressive and because we like walls; there are no walls in that building … much. So it's a very different kind of project.

Town House – Kingston University by Grafton Architects. (Photo © Ed Reeve)

I have a question that’s related to what you are saying in terms of translation. Yesterday during the award ceremony Yvonne said “drawings do not describe feelings” and other aspects of your buildings. And although I have not been to one of your buildings, unfortunately, the jury described how as soon as they visited the Town House, everything just kind of clicked – they knew immediately this was the winner. And so I'm wondering, are there many surprises that occur for you with the translation of your designs into buildings?

YF: When we stood under the sloping aula in Bocconi [Universita Luigi Bocconi, Milan] – five meters below ground with an eight-meter window – we looked at one another like we could feel something that we didn't know was going to be. You could feel the thing. I think when you go to Kingston, one of the things that I find is that, you know all the sections, but when you go in it's as if the verticals and the horizontals are kind of pulsing.

SM: It's not dramatic, actually. It's very calm. And you discover it; it's not prescriptive. It's kind of quiet and calm and then it just unfolds gradually. Whereas, when we went to Lima and they took down the scaffolding … the hair stood on the back of my neck when we walked through that space. Yvonne and I had flown 24 hours door to door and we didn't want any builders or anyone coming up and talking to us; we just wanted to be left there and walk through that space.

YF: We looked at each other and kind of went … [laughs].

SM: It was just amazing! The section steps towards the north, where the sun comes from, because we didn't want to make a space that was too hot and we didn't want to make a space that was too dark (it's foggy and it can get cool). So there was that whole tussle of how the section would work, how much light would be let in. When you approach the building, it looks porous on the outside, but when you get inside you don't see the sky. So you feel like you're in a solid building. I was really surprised by that.

In Kingston, it's the calmness of it. You go in and you wander around and see students sitting around; it's kind of casual. I was really delighted by how the students just took it as being theirs; they just took over every corner. It's full when it’s open and they're not in classes. Seeing the way that it invited life and invited use … it was not prescriptive, and that's what I meant by standing back. That was a real lesson for us, to actually try and see what can this program from the client be. How can that flourish? How can something grow in this place?

YF: There are spaces which are quieter and off the beaten track, let's say, and there are students who come in early who want to be there. There's choice. Some volumes are quieter and deeper, other places are taller and smaller and relate to something else. There's a photograph we didn't use yesterday of a single student sitting on one of the balconies outside; she's perched between city and university, and she's focusing. I don't know where she lives; she could be living in a basement flat somewhere and come to this university building to sit on this nest between Hampton Court in the distance and her space, and claim it. People can claim space in a different way.

Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Image courtesy of Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, University of Arkansas / Grafton Architects)

SM: When you think of Lima, that's really monumental. It’s not that we set out to make it monumental; we were making this arena for learning, it’s seismic, the structure was big, they used concrete since it's the most economical material to use there. And Kingston is lighter, but it has presence.

YF: We're building our first building in the United States, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It's going to be all timber. We are interested in the sound of this building and the smell of this building. This is, for us, an experiment (working with a group called modus studio in Arkansas) to make a building that will be an instrument; it's like making an enormous musical instrument that students will be in. In Lima, there’s these 40-meter cliffs out to the ocean, and metaphorically we took these cliffs as a kind of carved university that you go inside; it feels like the interior of a mountain. But in Arkansas we are really looking forward to this kind of blanket roof, holding together this building that will have its own distinct character. We are really looking forward to having a timber building in Northwest Arkansas.

I'm looking forward it – and to seeing it in person! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

World-Architects is Strategic Partner of the 2022 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture – Mies van der Rohe Award.

Other articles in this category