The 16th International Architecture Exhibition will take place from May 26th to November 25th 2018 (Preview May 24th and 25th) in the Giardini and the Arsenale, and around other venues in Venice. Curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara titled the 16th International Architecture Exhibition Freespace.
With the theme of Freespace, the Biennale Architettura 2018 will present for public scrutiny examples, proposals, elements – built or unbuilt – of work that exemplifies essential qualities of architecture which include the modulation, richness and materiality of surface; the orchestration and sequencing of movement, revealing the embodied power and beauty of architecture.
“I’m a rock person and she’s a bog person,” says Shelley McNamara of herself and Yvonne Farrell, her partner in Grafton Architects. She’s referring to their respective birthplaces in the stony west and the soggy middle of Ireland. Or perhaps it was Farrell speaking, in which case the pronouns need to be switched – my notes unpardonably fail to keep track of the badinage between them. Either way, the line nicely captures the preoccupations with place and physicality that inform their architecture. Their friendly interplay also reveals a working relationship that goes back to the early 70s when they were students together at University College Dublin.
Next month the 2018 Venice architecture biennale opens, under McNamara’s and Farrell’s curatorship. Theirs was a striking appointment for what is the world’s greatest exhibition and celebration of architecture, as they stand just outside the circuits of reputation and critical positioning that tend to generate biennale curators (who are appointed afresh for each edition). McNamara and Farrell are neither celebrities nor notable theorists. They are well-respected architects who, determinedly, consistently and over a long period of time, do their stuff. “It was a surprise to us to be invited,” they say, “and that’s putting it mildly.”
But what stuff. The RIBA international prize-winning UTEC, a “vertical campus” for a technical university building in Lima, Peru, that was completed in 2015, looks at least from afar like one of the buildings of the century. Its form is unashamedly dramatic – a high, curving, all-concrete structure intended to echo the cliffs on which Lima stands. It resembles a piece of infrastructure, an outgrowth of the highway that runs past one side or a fragment of a stadium, but then it shifts deftly from this mighty scale to intimate, sociable, half-enclosed zones between the university’s laboratories, lecture theatres, library and offices.
The bold form serves to shelter the building’s quieter side from the noise of the highway. It is also like a stack of vast splendid bookshelves, with essential functions of the university loosely placed about it, leaving gaps between to capture the breeze and give space for people to meet and circulate. This combination of grandeur and freedom is what brutalism, the rediscovered style of the moment, aimed to achieve. There is an acknowledged debt, too, to the Latin maestras and maestros of concrete, such as Lina Bo Bardi in Brazil and Clorindo Testa in Argentina, but their motifs have been reworked in a way that is Grafton’s own.
Curators of the Venice biennale have to set a theme both for the exhibitions they direct themselves, and for the displays by individual countries in the national pavilions in the biennale’s gardens. Farrell and McNamara’s theme is “Freespace”, which they say describes “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda”. It can also mean the “free and additional spatial gifts” that architecture can offer and “its ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers”. They have invited a selection of like-minded architects to demonstrate these qualities with three-dimensional installations of “scale and quality”.
To illustrate what they mean, they cite a tiled concrete bench that Jørn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, installed at the entrance to his house of Can Lis in Mallorca. It is, they say, “moulded perfectly to the human body for comfort and pleasure”. That the same architect could design both this small “word of greeting” and the symbol of an entire nation demons trates, they say, the range that is an essential quality of architecture.
The unsolicited “spatial gifts” that architecture can add could be at the scale of city – a free public garden, for example – or at the scale of a surface you touch. It may not involve construction – “sitting under a cherry blossom is as happy an architectural space as you’ll find” – but these “emotional components” are what make architecture worth doing. Without them, say Farrell and McNamara, who have nursed their practice through three recessions, and who must deal with “wild horses of need, commerce, regulations, speed and time”, architects would be enduring “all that pain” of their stressful profession and “getting nothing back”.
“Generosity” is a favourite word. Almost all their current projects, including university buildings in Toulouse, Kingston upon Thames and the London School of Economics, include big, accessible, non-prescriptive spaces. They also talk of flows and movement, of people, air, light and atmosphere. Their plans for a new city library for Dublin will (they say with the natural imagery they often use) “let the city wash through the ground floor”.
This talk of openness and flow could take many forms. It might, for example, imply indeterminate, hangar-like spaces of would-be infinite flexibility. Grafton don’t go this way – their structures are emphatic, unmissable, physical, very much there. They have faith in the particular, decisive power of architectural construction, and the way it is detailed and organised, to move and impress. This means there is pushing and pulling in their work between the fixed and the mobile, or give and take, for which all aspects are potentially stronger.
Not that the fixed parts seem lifeless. Grafton talk of their structures in animate terms, of columns as trees or of buildings having both personality and rhythm. For all its piled-up mass, UTEC is dynamic, curving in response to the lines of the roads and the landscape. Grafton use overhangs and cantilevers to dramatise gravity. Their Department of Finance offices in Dublin, a cubic official building necessarily inaccessible to the general public, still imparts a sense of vigour through the cutting of its masonry and the patterns of its windows. The contrast in Grafton’s architecture is not so much between the inert and the lively as between arrested and continuing motion.
The name Grafton is taken from the central Dublin street where they first had their office (they still have it, though their main premises are now round the corner in College Green). It indicates a collaborative desire, in that the name is not that of individuals, and a belief in the importance of a place. Part of their strength comes from being grounded in such a specific place as Dublin, while also teaching in the architecture school in Mendrisio, Switzerland, and designing buildings in Lima, Toulouse and Milan.
They say that their architecture is “trying to make you aware of where you are”. The line is nice but potentially platitudinous – as indeed are some of their other statements – if it weren’t for the force and invention with which Farrell and McNamara translate them into construction. They speak of visiting Le Corbusier’s Assembly building in Chandigarh, India, and how it “makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck”. The rock person and the bog person are, with their best buildings, not far off achieving that themselves.
Grafton Architects: three of the best
University campus, UTEC, Lima
UTEC is an “arena of learning” where the facilities of a technical university – laboratories, lecture theatres, offices, the library – are stacked up in a multistorey structure that creates shelter from a busy road. Generous terraces, passageways and roof gardens, left open to the warm, dry climate, provide spaces for circulation and chance encounters. The same climate minimises the need for insulation and waterproofing, which means that almost every surface is bare concrete, which gives an exceptional, almost geological, consistency to the project.
City Library, Parnell Square, Dublin
Grafton’s designs for a new city library envisage a dramatic central space behind what they call a “crust” of retained Georgian terraces. The ground level is intended to be as accessible as possible, to passersby as well as library users, so as to “let the city wash through”. Big, tree-like columns will support roof gardens that Grafton compare to Laputa, the flying island of “trees and intellectuals” imagined by their fellow Dubliner Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.
School of Economics, Universita Luigi Bocconi, Milan
This project, completed in 2008, was far larger than anything Grafton had built at the time. It seeks to connect the “beehive world of research” in the upper storeys of offices with “the throbbing urban life of Milan” outside. The lower levels are conceived as a “large market hall” or “place of exchange” where the city meets the university. The dramatic shape of the main auditorium, which the architects call a “boulder”, gives “symbolic” presence, while a glass wall underneath acts as a “window to Milan”.
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