By any reasonable measure, this week's awarding of the 2020 Pritzker prize to Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects is a major achievement. Widely regarded as architecture's highest honour, the annual prize is the profession's equivalent of a Nobel, a Booker or an Oscar.
Factor in the fact that the Pritzke comes hard on the heels of a number of other landmark moments for the two architects, including last year’s British Royal Gold Medal, and their joint curatorship of the 2018 Venice Biennale, and it is clear that Farrell and McNamara are now in the very small and select number of living Irish cultural figures who are at the very top of the world rankings.
So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that some disappointment was expressed last week that the Pritzke success had not been accorded the same level of excitement and coverage that you’d get for an Irish winner of an Oscar, a Booker, a Nobel or even a Grammy. This, it was implied, was a sign of how architecture as an artform was ignored or undervalued here.
Perhaps. But perhaps it’s also unrealistic to expect a professional award of this sort, no matter how prestigious, to compete with success in the high-powered spotlight of the global entertainment industry. You don’t need to conduct a poll to know that the Pritzke is not a name the majority of people were aware of before this week’s announcement. And there’s a fundamental difference between a prize acknowledging a full career’s work and something like the Booker, whose prime purpose is to persuade people to go out and buy the titles in contention.
And yet, there is a valid question as to why architecture – one of the accepted Seven Arts – gets less attention or scrutiny than its literary, musical or visual equivalents. After all, it arguably has a more far-reaching impact on our daily life experiences than most other forms of culture, which get more coverage.
One reason for this may be a simple category problem. Disciplines which don’t sit snugly under one journalistic definition can end up being under-appreciated. Some forms of cultural production – fashion, graphic design, media – hover uncertainly between the arts, business and news sections, often depending on what day of the week it is or which writer was assigned to cover them (subject categorisation in the age of digital media is a whole fraught subject in itself, which we’ll leave for another day).
Architecture may be viewed through a range of different prisms – aesthetic, environmental, commercial, social. The result may be that it’s not discussed in sufficient depth anywhere. Or sometimes it’s not discussed at all, even when it’s staring us in the face (as architecture, unlike other artforms, tends to do).
For example, the south central core of Dublin – effectively the administrative and commercial heart of the State – is in the midst of a dramatic makeover. The Irish Times office here on Tara Street is surrounded by building sites, as unloved blocks built in the 1960s are replaced by buildings which will be more contemporary and more efficient, but not necessarily more inspiring. On the other side of Trinity College Dublin, a similar process is taking place in the area between Grafton Street and Dáil Éireann. There's been little or no comment on the aesthetic merits of these new structures, which we'll be living with for generations.
Similarly, debate over the housing crisis and homelessness scandal, which dominated much of the recent election campaign, was remarkably devoid of in-depth consideration of what contemporary architectural thinking had to say about building better and more liveable spaces for the future. Instead, we had developers buying ad space to call for the removal of height restrictions on their sites.
For several decades, Frank McDonald, this newspaper's former environment editor, who profiles Farrell and McNamara today, has chronicled Ireland's troubled relationship with its built environment. It's a story that has been driven too often by philistinism, greed, corruption and an ideologically driven preference for exurban sprawl. We're now going to have to roll much of that back if we're ever going to meet the moral imperatives and internationally binding commitments arising from the climate crisis. Our towns and cities are a mess. Our rural areas are scarred by unsustainable sprawl. And yet we are home to one of the world's most admired architectural partnerships. Maybe that's a disconnect worth thinking about.