Only the second Irish practice ever to take the coveted award, O’Donnell + Tuomey’s often surprising architectural moves are marked by a deep understanding of site, bravery and passion
Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey may not have built an enormous volume of work in their three decades of practice. Their goal is never size; nor is it global domination. The buildings realised by the winners of the 2015 Royal Gold Medal for architecture are remarkable for their inventive quality, their close attention to place and to form, to structure and to palette, to architectural character. Curious phrase that, ‘architectural character’…it suggests personality, figuration, a literary or artistic bent. Something distinct from the technophilia or simplistic functionalism that frequently passed for architectural culture in the 1970s when the duo began their particular architectural odyssey in Dublin.
O’Donnell and Tuomey have an almost uncanny ability, even in their bigger projects, to counter preconceived notions of architecture, to sculpt and re-present site, programme, typology - the stuff of institutions in both city and countryside. Their designs for the robust Timberyard public housing in inner-city Dublin, the lyrical Lyric Theatre on its riverbank in Belfast, the vertical casbah that is the Saw Swee Hock Student Centre at the LSE, all these and more tackle complex programmes and idiosyncratic sites. The completed buildings are able to surprise us where perhaps we had seen only difficulty or constriction; they are able to instigate exploration on foot and by eye while keeping focus on communal space.
O’Donnell and Tuomey have an almost uncanny ability, even in their bigger projects, to counter preconceived notions of architecture
This is only the second Royal Gold Medal to be awarded to Irish architects. The first, in 1975, was awarded to Michael Scott whose practice helped introduce European and North American modes of architecture to post-independence Ireland. O’Donnell and Tuomey represent a very different architectural moment, one conscious of historical nuance and of European urban culture. From their earliest projects, like the Irish Film Centre embedded in Dublin’s Temple Bar, O’Donnell and Tuomey deal with the imperfection and the potential of existing architectural fabric. They engage with reality, even when working in such problematic sites as the grim former industrial school at Letterfrack in rural Galway.
O’Donnell and Tuomey have long been instrumental in nurturing Irish architectural culture. This writer remembers well from his days at University College Dublin the return, from London, of an enigmatic, red-haired John Tuomey, passionately engaged with criticism and instruction and the wide world of architecture. Sheila returned soon after, a brave act in recession-era Dublin after the couple’s immersion in London’s vanguard design milieus, in particular the office of Stirling/Wilford. They have quietly kept alert to London ever since, entering competitions, completing the Photographers Gallery in Soho in 2012 and now the LSE Student Centre, their fifth project to be shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize.
O’Donnell and Tuomey have made successive interventions at the Venice Biennale. In 2004 they represented Ireland, then at the height of Celtic Tiger madness, with a haunting depiction of Letterfrack; in 2012, in the Corderie, they erected an atmospheric tower from stacked timber planks. Again character. In Cork, their Glucksman Gallery is a delicious beast of interlocking volumes, perched on pilotis by the river Lee. If O’Donnell and Tuomey don’t build many projects, the ones they do complete have been fully interrogated. Up to and including such recent proposals as the Central European University for Budapest, each design by the 2015 Gold Medal winners results from meticulous intelligence.
An Gaeláras Irish Language Arts and Cultural Centre, 2009
London School of Economics Saw Swee Hock Students’ Centre, 2013
Ranelagh Multi-Denominational School, 1988
Lyric Theatre, Belfast, 2012
Index photograph: Alex Bland (www.alex-bland.co.uk)