'Women, Meaning, Gravity' Interview with Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara by Valeria Molinari
2 April 2020
The Academy of architecture and the Teatro dell'architettura Mendrisio are pleased to publish the interview by Valeria Molinari "Women, Meaning, Gravity".
The interview to Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara here presented, was realised by Valeria Molinari, a student from the Accademia, as part of her thesis work (Women, meaning, gravity. Understanding and reflecting on Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara’s approach, January 2020). The intention of the work was to examine the thought of the architects through three fundamental issues: gender identity, metalinguistic relation between building and meaning, the role - often underlined by the architects- of gravity in architecture. The interview investigates these issues from an autobiographic prospective.
Prof. Matteo Vegetti, thesis supervisor
WOMEN, MEANING, GRAVITY. DIALOGUE WITH YVONNE FARRELL AND SHELLEY MCNAMARA
VALERIA MOLINARI: You are two prominent voices in the architectural debate today. I believe that your experiences, your stories and your opinions are of a great importance for us, young women architects. Is there an event that initiated your career as architects?
YVONNE FARRELL: As a child I was interested in making, I used to do sets for plays and ballets. Playing with space, but not being aware of what architecture was. I don’t think there was one moment, it was really a continuation of things, watching people in spaces. I lived in a town that had formal public spaces, our house had a road to the front and the back garden opened onto fields. So I was connected with urbanity but also with nature. As I grew older and attended school, I realised that Architecture is a wonderful combination of mathematics, geography, and culture.
SHELLEY MCNAMARA: I didn’t always want to be an architect. I grew up in a family of builders. I’ve been close to the construction environment since I was young, with joinery and all kinds of building activities close to the house. Then, when I grew up I decided to study architecture. Once you enter the world of architecture, you get hooked, you can’t go back.
VALERIA MOLINARI: Which architects, philosophers and mentors have been important for your formation?
YVONNE FARRELL: When Shelley and I went to University College Dublin, we discovered Le Corbusier. He was a really important influence in terms of his ability to be both rational and emotional. He had both a visual and a construction ability.
In the school of Architecture where we were, a number of professors and tutors had worked with Mies Van Der Rohe, but we found Mies too specific, too rational and cold.
SHELLEY MCNAMARA: Certainly Le Corbusier was a mentor for us, for his freedom, and ability to develop radical ideas.
Outside the field of architecture, the work of Thomas Mann was significant, for his analysis on sociological issues and changes in the natural world, along with reflecting deeply on the irrational forces of the human psyche. I learned a lot from A.S Byatt: in her novel Babel Tower she offers a unique insight into the structure of language, which I find helpful when thinking about architecture.
VALERIA MOLINARI: Have you been explicitly looking for women role models?
YVONNE FARRELL: There were not women role models as such. I think being Irish was of great advantage. We never felt that we were less than our male colleagues. We felt there was a sense of equality, but we were lucky to feel that.
VALERIA MOLINARI: I have discovered this summer that the feminist debate between architects in the 1980s and 1990s was particularly fervent. These were the years when you got your degree. What were your feelings at that time?
YVONNE FARRELL: It seems ridiculous now, but during the years before we came to University in Dublin, female students had to fight for the right to wear jeans! We were lucky. We were very lucky that there were women just before us, who were much more radical and voiced their opinions. Women got the vote in Ireland very early. Ireland was one of the first countries to have an elected woman representative in Parliament. We were lucky. We were very lucky that there were women just before us, who were much more radical. Its my understanding that in some cantons of Switzerland , that women could only vote from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Voting is really important. I really valued my vote because I know there were people who changed their lives on our behalf in order to obtain the vote.
We are from a country that values women. I’m not saying that the balance is perfect, but I don’t ever remember thinking:‘because I’m a female I can’t do something’. Whatever you wanted to study, there was encouragement both within the family and within the school structure.
VALERIA MOLINARI: The Architects Council of Europe shows that women students in Europe are more than 50%. Nevertheless the balance is not reflected at all in the working environment, where the gender pay gap is around 25%. In the academic environment only 31% of the university member (both part time and full-time) are women. What do you think?
SHELLEY MCNAMARA: I think women have to assume the right to be equal. They tend to stand back. They have to consider their right fully; be more demanding. There is a beautiful book by Virginia Wolf, entitled “A room of one’s own and three Guineas”, (1929)in which she tries to explain the reason why women have been at the back in literature. One of the things that had held women back was the lack of economic independence. Today the situation is improving, but it’s still difficult.
I would say that in the architectural field, it’s hard for young people in general. In the European Union it is very difficult to emerge for both young men and women because of the strict regulations.
YVONNE FARRELL: Yes of course there have been improvements. But I can’t believe that there are offices that pay women less than men, this is absolutely disgraceful. I think that until the proportion of women and men in public life is more balanced, there should be positive discrimination. It’s a difficult topic to discuss. In some cases, the gentleness of the female tends to encourage women to stand back and let other people go forward. Testosterone does make life different.I think for a lot of women their gentleness is a strength , but also it requires that females have a firmer belief in themselves to step forward and be involved. Men have fantastic strengths and women have fantastic strengths. There are studies which show that firms that have a large degree of female participation are more successful. Because the business of architecture is actually very complex, I think the main issue is when women are of child-bearing age.
Family life and business life have a kind of a conflict. There is the need to have some sort of flexibility. In terms of how it could be improved? I think, for example, here in Mendrisio there should be more women professors. There are few now. There should be undoubtedly more. We need to find a balance. That is really important for society and culture at large.
VALERIA MOLINARI: Do you think there are specific contributions that women architects can bring to architecture?
YVONNE FARRELL: Alejandro De La Sota, describes the utero placenta to be the first place of architecture where you are contained.
Personally, if you are asking about specific contributions, it’s interesting that many women are really good at listening, which is an undervalued form of contribution. When you listen, you hopefully hear what has been said, and you can begin to see things from a different point of view.
One of the most important aspects of architecture is empathy, to try and imagine yourself on the other person’s side. It doesn’t guarantee good architecture, because sometimes you could be fractured by hearing too much, but listening enriches architecture.
We often say that as architects we are translators, because we try to hear what people say, to then translate their needs in the project. As an example, women architects might realise that the threshold of the school is at the school gate, that architecture can happen where parents are waiting for the children coming out. That threshold space is very powerful. The Dutch architect, Aldo Van Eyck talked about this particular place and this spatial attitude. It’s obviously not only women architects who have a certain sensibility to humanity. I don’t really think it’s a question of men or women. I think it’s due to getting opportunities and to certain personality types. From a woman’s point of view, I think we are a bit more contextual, we are more about the group and we think of ourselves as a “part of”, as opposed to the singularity of one person. In terms of specific contributions finally, I think females are another voice, and we should be proud of expressing it.
I think also that - I might be wrong - that there is a sense within the female psyche, of trying to work with the group, trying to consider the working together as a value, you don’t have to be a singularity, working as an ensemble has a strength.
VALERIA MOLINARI: You are an example of being able to work as a group with Shelley and the office team. You have run the office together for more than 30 years. How did it happen?
YVONNE FARRELL: I have tremendous respect for Shelley, she has an amazing tenacity of not letting our standards slip. She has very high ambitions to make each project the best it can be. We are different kinds of personalities, which is interesting because this makes our relationship dynamic.
VALERIA MOLINARI: What do you think about the issue of gender equality, is it still actual?
YVONNE FARRELL: I think women should be given more opportunity or take more opportunity. I think that this discussion is really important because it raises the issue of prejudices.
You know that some people would see a woman in a group and ask her to make the tea, and she might be the president of the organisation! You are right that in many societies there are prejudices against women, and men get more chances.
While the life pattern of a young male tends to be linear, the life pattern of a young female in terms of time is more variable. We got an award recently, because we are women. We were ambiguous about that at the time, but now we feel that is a good thing. If for years and years in the past, it has always been men being recognised and getting awards, we are proud to open new doors.
Life is better if we have males and females mixed and working together. I think opportunity and prejudice are the two main points.
We, as Grafton Architects, have been very lucky in terms of opportunities, people have trusted us with commissions.
I would like to add that in everyday life the support of family and friends is really important. Especially women with children, you need practical support, psychological support, friendship. You need backup. Those things are the metrics of life. You can be very talented and be bypassed because of lack of opportunity, luck and support. You have to hope that you meet good destiny through your life and you have to work hard.
VALERIA MOLINARI: You have stated at different times your willingness to always find a meaning for your project. In which sense?
YVONNE FARRELL: I think of meaning in its linguistic sense - the power of words. I suppose it comes from an Irish tradition. We have a really strong oral tradition. Personally, I’m fascinated by fiction in literature. Writers can invent a whole world in words, so that you read a book and you are inside this mental world and it is so real. When I was a teenager, I loved the work of Thomas Hardy, the English writer. He was an architect before becoming a writer and when you read his work you realise how physical his descriptions of places are. When people describe their trips to India or Japan, they are describing in words their physical and emotional experiences.
For us, when we were dealing with a new project, for example: the University Campus UTEC in Perù, we had to begin to imagine a whole new world for a new university. We looked at the 40 meter high cliffs on which Lima is built. We thought:“what if we make a man-made cliff; a vertical campus or an arena for learning”?. These were concepts or words to try to invent and to hold a new imagined world together. Very physical and newly imagined!
VALERIA MOLINARI: How do you reach the awareness that allows your project to have meaning?
YVONNE FARRELL: Architecture starts with needs, which involves meaning. It’s a complex topic. I’ll use the University Bocconi as an example of what I mean. Bocconi already had a full permission for a building on the site where they held the competition. I believe that the commissioners felt that the proposed building was fine, but it wasn’t ‘saying’ enough to the city about their university. So they decided to hold a competition because they knew they needed to ‘say’ something else. We believe that architecture is a silent language that ’speaks’.
When we were doing the competition, we had nice drawings, nice elevations and sections, but we knew it wasn’t ‘saying’ enough, we didn’t know what the meaning was. Then, we moved the aula magna from a lower level, up higher in section and then to a new position at the busy street intersection and then the aula magna began to say: “Hello Milano”. We felt we have discovered something. Meaning comes in a number of ways.
With the University Campus UTEC’s project in Lima we had a huge number of things to deal with. We tried to find a way of organising education needs that worked. Architecture is functional first of all and then it has a symbolic component. Not everything has to be symbolic. Somethings are ordinary and then other things have a component that reveals something, the expression in English is: ‘to hit the nail on the head’.
In the section for the UTEC University Campus in Lima, when we used the term ‘a manmade cliff’, we realised it had a kind of a coherence, a kind of DNA. The section we proposed had a meaning for us. It’s a bit like the difference between literature and story. In literature there is something additional that gives another value to the story.
You ask: What does meaning have to do with a particular project? On the one hand, it is finding the inherence story and coherence of the project; on the other: it is finding the architectural meaning to society. The general public might not know this, but they are held by architecture. That’s why we use the term: architecture as a new geography.
Architecture has meaning, has impact. If you are held by a beautiful surface it’s different than being held by a really badly made, badly considered building that nobody cares about. I’m convinced that people register the impact of buildings on their skin, in their bodies, in their psyche, even if they don’t register it. For example, even if you don’t play an instrument, you can hear when the music is off key. Probably human beings can tell also with architecture. Everything that is made by mankind has meaning; some things have good meaning and others are detrimental to your well-being.
VALERIA MOLINARI: Which project of yours triggered the most interesting discourse in your opinion?
YVONNE FARRELL: That’s a very powerful question, I think in each project we do we try to understand what is the discourse. We opened recently the project in Toulouse: a School of Economics, the project has a different discourse, for example to Bocconi University. Bocconi might seem more rational, but light dances across the rigour of both buildings.
We try to see what is the component of each project that is alive and we try to bring that into the project, say for example: materiality, sunlight, protection from the sun, community.
It’s beautiful to observe how people use a project once it’s built. In our building in Toulouse to see the community of scholars coming across bridges, moving on the staircases, coming down for a coffee, this is what gives meaning to architecture.
We hope that each project has some ingredients that contribute to the context. Some projects have more ingredients than others, some are modest and quieter.
We hope that each project has an element of architectural discourse. In Toulouse recently, one of my brother-in-laws was in a taxi on his way to the airport, and the taxi man said to him as they drove passed our building:‘there is a new building there, you can see that architects try to deal with history and modernity’. It was really satisfying for us to hear this comment of a complete stranger. During the opening of our Bocconi Project on the 1st November 2008 something incredible happened for us: an elderly woman -whom we didn’t know - not an architect – was looking around the new building and said to us: “the structure is immense but it embraces you”! That moment was extremely emotional for us because that person understood exactly what we, as architects, had hoped people would feel. Architecture is a language that we have to learn to speak. Sometimes it speaks more clearly than at other times.
VALERIA MOLINARI: How does the discourse of a project start?
SHELLEY MCNAMARA: I think that the discourse of a project starts from the place itself. The discourse can be built also simply by answering to the needs of people and the place. We are like detectives, we have to look for clues and then translate those clues into the projects. We have been ‘reading’ spaces since the beginning of our practice in 1978. We did it for many years in Dublin. We continue to be fascinated by the dynamics of city life. We are interested in architecture’s ability to provide a matrix, a framework for life. We believe that architecture has the responsibility to amplify existing culture, to integrate the past and the future, so that things are not erased but woven together. As Alejandro de la Sota said: “an architect should make as much nothing as possible”. It is in this ‘nothing’ , that Life happens.
VALERIA MOLINARI: The ability to create a discourse does it have to do with an intuition, or does it emerges later?
YVONNE FARRELL: Intuition is a very important ingredient in life – a very deep intelligence. Intuition is interesting because it has an emotional component.
Intuition makes you hear what you don’t know, it’s both rigorous and organic.
I’m reminded of how stones are made round and smooth by the motion of the sea and by the passage of time. In the same way, we try to work with our ideas to find the rounded and smooth ‘stone’ of a refined idea.
Going back to your questions regarding meaning, architecture is the really important discipline which has the capacity to make the world - a better world for everybody.
VALERIA MOLINARI: As you say in Dialogue and Translation: “the idea of gravity is a kind of a conscience, we see it in the weight of architecture, in the traditions that we take from, and in the question of just how much an architect needs to do”. Could you go deeper on what you define as gravity?
YVONNE FARRELL: Gravity is intriguing. Shelley and I have discussed where our interest might have came from. For me, I remember seeing many years ago, an incredible dance group from Japan at a Dublin Theatre Festival. They hardly moved at all on the stage. They defined space. Then after 5 minutes or so, they had completely changed their positions on the stage, but you hadn’t noticed any difference or how they achieved this. It was like if the dancers defied gravity.
Gravity is the energy of the Earth holding us onto itself. I recently watched the film Apollo 11, when the two astronauts landed on the Moon, they experience almost no gravity. Watching them, you could see how fragile and how exposed we are as creatures. Gravity is one of the things that affects human beings deeply. You might say that many contemporary buildings are lightweight. Our Bocconi University building appears to have weight, to be anchored into Milan. The new Bocconi campus buildings designed by SANAA are the opposite. They are really lightweight. They are very beautiful, very elegant. It is not a question of either/or, heavy or light, gravity or not gravity.
VALERIA MOLINARI: I find interesting that you often refer to the double meaning of gravity. Not only its physical, but also its moral acceptation, which refers to behaviours and to thoughtful action. How does this idea is translated into the project?
YVONNE FARRELL: Every architectural project has the potential to have meaning, to have gravity. Every project, even a small one, whether it’s a wall, a seat, or a door, has that capacity. The concrete seat with the ceramic tiles, designed by Jørn Utzon, at the entrance of the house: Can Lis, in Majorca, which we studied together, has gravitas and generosity. Gravitas, is not about scale, it is about consciousness. If you get craftsmanship and an intellectual idea working together, the result can have a real impact. I haven’t seen the work in reality, but Hans van der Laan was an architect and a monk, who made a beautiful building, the Roosenberg Abbey, very simple very modest but with gravitas, not too much light not too little, just enough.. I suppose it all depends on the project. You could possibly do something with too much gravitas, with too much meaning, then it would be too much !
VALERIA MOLINARI: I thought about gravity as a way to respond to the global trends and to the homologation forces, what do you think?
YVONNE FARRELL: When we were asked to be the Curators of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, we were asked to write a Manifesto as the theme. We made a list of the things we value. One of the most important, besides generosity , was “the Earth as Client”. Whoever our client is, in the end we all share this planet. We are all on this fragile Earth together. We all share responsibility. If you talk about the gravity of the situation, or the gravity of responsibility, we have recently finished with our students a research on timber construction and self-sufficient housing in the Venice Lagoon. It’s really part of our research, of how self-sufficient each project can become. The gravity of the situation is that the resources of the earth are limited. We can’t keep eating up materials, affecting the atmosphere. The implications for architecture are enormous. We are doing research into timber construction to see how we can use renewables resources more sustainably, or reuse existing buildings, where possible.
It’s serious situation - one we have to deal with and develop inventive solutions. Greta Thunberg - the sixteen year old young female, environmental warrior- she’s terrific. She inspirational! I think, you should be interviewing her!
VALERIA MOLINARI: “Be conscious”, how do you think this status can be developed in architecture?
SHELLEY MCNAMARA: I think the status of being conscious can be developed through a civic sense. Architecture responds to a civic need, it’s a service. Therefore, architects should serve, and not be narcissistic. Architects have the task to imagine alternative worlds, that respond to specific problems of today’s society. Imagination leads to optimism.
The title of the Venice Biennale of 2018, curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara was entitled Freespace, this idea - in the first line of the Manifesto of the event - is defined as: “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture's agenda”. The value of generosity, on one hand represents the element of cohesion of the work of Grafton Architects, as it is expressed in the project in Milan, Lima, Toulouse, mentioned in the interview. On the other hand, the idea of “the Earth as a client” represents the invite to welcome the ecological issue as the epochal challenge towards which architecture is asked to respond.
I wish to thank Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara for sharing their time, experiences and thoughts. I consider it as an act of generosity.
Valeria Molinari is currently finishing her Master program in Architecture at the Atelier Grafton of the Academy of Architecture-USI in Mendrisio. She completed her internship year at the Berlin office of architect Francis Kéré, attending the design of the Serpentine Pavilion 2017 in London. She also participated in the Erasmus mobility programme at the EPFL in Lausanne.
The interview took place in Mendrisio the 20th December