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Retrospective: Grafton Architects

Self-proclaimed translators rather than authors, Grafton offer silence in the cacophony of the city

‘A painter should have his tongue cut out,’ declared Henri Matisse, ‘so that he would be compelled to say all he had to say with his brush.’ In quoting the French artist, Colin St John Wilson argues that Sigurd Lewerentz remains an architectural exception: ‘he was a man of few words; all he had to say was said by the way a brick is laid, a pair of beams straddle a column, a piece of glass is clamped across an aperture in the wall, a path is cut through a forest. What for lesser mortals is called “detail” was for him a means of heightening and transfiguring the day-to-day’.

This deliberate silence feels particularly apt when applied to the realm of the sacred (St John Wilson references the Swedish architect’s churches at Björkhagen and Klippan) and it is perhaps no surprise that Adolf Loos believed the tomb and the monument to be the only architectures that ‘belong to art’. But beyond the religious and the funerary, silence is sadly a missing quality in contemporary architecture. Amid the cacophony of the city, where individuality is moulded into extravagant forms and expressive structures, there are few places of respite, fewer even of restraint.

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / Bocconi University School of Economics in Milan

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / Bocconi University School of Economics in Milan

Competition collage for the School of Economics at Bocconi University in Milan. Image courtesy of Grafton architects / Phaid

As the antithesis of the prancy, attention-seeking buildings by self-proclaimed masters and oversized egos, silence is better understood as an absence: a lack of noise, a void or a vacuum, a space between notes. From the Smithsons’ ‘charged voids’ to Alejandro de la Sota’s suggestion to make ‘as much nothing as possible’, the idea of silence generates anticipation and triggers expectation. Just like it instils drama in music, in space silence becomes the physical manifestation of stillness.

Speaking at Trinity College this May, Grafton Architects’ co-founder Yvonne Farrell defines architecture as the ‘silent language that speaks’. She evokes the nuances, accents and characters of built form, reflects on the frightful silencing of buildings – from the closure of the Bauhaus by the Nazis to the devastating blaze of Notre Dame – and recounts how she heard each and every step of Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio speak to her: an invitation to climb upstairs. 

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, Ireland

The topographic section of the Solstice Arts Centre reveals it is cut into the slope of the steep site – click to download

After nearly 25 years building exclusively in Ireland, an unexpected competition win took the Irish practice to the land of Scarpa in 2001 (unexpected because ‘you presume you’re not going to win, you do it for yourself, for your own development as a practice’, explains Shelley McNamara, the practice’s other half). Bocconi University represented a ‘huge, fantastic break’ that saw the practice grow from a total of eight people, with some working part-time, to 22, at a time when architectural opportunities at home had stagnated. ‘We were the least known, we were the outsiders’, admits McNamara, but ‘we knew when we were doing it that we were ready’. 

An elderly Milanese neighbour granted the photographer access to her apartment to document construction of the new university building and joined the architects on the day of the opening – after initially refusing, twice, Farrell and McNamara’s invitation. ‘The structure is immense, but it embraces you’, she observed, relieved, while walking down milky white steps of lasa marble deeper into the sunken, cavernous entrails of courtyards, auditoriums and concourses. Beyond the geological, it feels visceral.

Farrell often refers to buildings as creatures. A decade ago, she likened the newly completed Italian university to an oyster because of its ‘white, light delicate inside’ cocooned in a ‘tough grey carapace’ – to help express the personalities, the spirit and the flaws of constructions that are otherwise read as static, mute backdrops. Showing me around a building site in Toulouse, where an ambitious research centre for the School of Economics is nearing completion, Grafton Architects’ co-director Philippe O’Sullivan, who joined the practice back in 1992, believes the French university’s latest addition is definitely a ‘she’ (‘even if bâtiment is technically masculine’). The personification of streets, sites and structures exhumes buildings’ seemingly unexpected aptitude to engage in a dialogue with the world around them. And ‘once a building becomes a creature, it can also resist’, declares Farrell. 

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / Toulouse School of Economics, France

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / Stone pavilion in Verona, Italy

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / University campus for UTEC, Lima, Peru

For Architecture as New Geography at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, Grafton explored architecture as the consolidation of landscape and infrastructure using models of stone construction illustrating (from top) Toulouse School of Economics, the Stone Pavilion in Verona, and Lima UTEC campus

It might seem evident amid the sea of terracotta-tiled roofs and the blushing alleys of pink-to-crimson clay-brick, but out of three invited practices Grafton Architects was the only one to propose a brick building for the new School of Economics in the ville rose – glass and stone were respectively preferred by the other two contenders. Rather than the now common plaquettes (brick tiles) affixed to steel frames (so common that it proved difficult to find local bricklayers), the new research centre’s bricks are of the same scale as the adjoining medieval wall, with delicate compositional plays on the elevations. Located at the edge of the old city, and at a stone’s throw of Albi cathedral, the world’s tallest brick construction that so famously inspired Louis Kahn, it is a contemporary building made out of a very ancient material.  

The Milanese institution’s name, Università Bocconi, is printed in large, black letters on the concrete underside, and ‘it was tempting to replicate that here’ admits O’Sullivan in Toulouse but, just like the thin skin of ceppo stone quarried from riverbanks near Lake Iseo to clad the Italian concrete structure, ‘that belongs to Milan’. And it is architecture’s responsibility to ‘anchor you where you are, to not be displaced, to heighten your sense of place’ believe the architects.

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / Temple Bar Square, Dublin, Ireland

1991 marks the ‘year zero’ of many Irish practices, when Group 91 proposed a necklace of interventions and renovations to rescue Dublin’s blighted Temple Bar. Grafton Architects’ housing and ground-floor retail forms the backdrop of Temple Bar Square

From the Duomo’s stone-paved roof in Milan to the brick buttresses of Toulouse, seeking inspiration in the mysterious cool interiors of palazzi and hôtels particuliers, and learning from the vibrant urban life that sprawls out of cloisters and courtyards in the mild Mediterranean climate, ‘it is important to feel that we aren’t arrogant strangers’, confesses McNamara. Working abroad, and at times in settings much more distant and unfamiliar than Ireland’s European neighbours, is about finding ‘connections between cultures’.

Spanning epochs and continents, architecture seeks to reconcile seemingly contradictory conditions – the secure versus the hostile, the intimate versus the heroic – and it is through processes of mediation and negotiation that human constructions shape our relationship to the world around us. In the dusty, salty air of Peru’s capital, marooned between a middle-class residential neighbourhood on one side and busy motorways, their flyovers and interchanges on the other, the convoluted site for UTEC, Lima’s University of Technology  and Engineering, demanded a daring, almost uncompromising, solution.

Presenting a burly facade to the rushing traffic, the staggered rims of Grafton Architects’ 12-storey artificial cliff step down softly to meet the low-rise houses of Barranco. The luxury of working in a part of the world where it virtually doesn’t rain (a condition unheard of for Dubliners, who endure 750mm of rainfall a year) enables the architects to push all the vertical circulation to one side and open it up to the skies, with ramps and staircases winding back and forth, interrupted by a Piranesian tangle of balconies, protruding beams and chiselled floor slabs. Originally inspired by the slanted profile of Eduardo Souto de Moura’s Braga Stadium, the Peruvian megastructure dematerialises in the incandescent tropical light.

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / University campus for UTEC, Lima, Peru

The winding labyrinth of airborne walkways, staircases and flying buttresses forms the innards of the new university campus for UTEC in Lima. Photograph by Iwan Baan

Although the first phase of UTEC was completed four years ago, following an incredibly fast 13-month construction, the vertical, open-air circulation was in fact inspired by the still-in-construction Toulouse School of Economics – the architect’s first visit to the site in the south of France was exactly 10 years ago, and the building is now due to complete in the autumn, with Spanish urban designer Joan Busquets looking after the surrounding public space. Envisioned as carved containers, the concrete core in Toulouse, exposed like open-heart surgery, and the eroded interior in Lima establish themselves as immutable forces, weighty material presences reassuring in the thickness of their walls, in the sharpness of their edges, and even in the roughness of their finish. 

The line differentiating architecture from infrastructure blurs – is it a matter of scale, of image as opposed to performance, or is it something else? Research on motorway bridges dating back to the practice’s early years (Grafton Architects designed two, one in Bray and the other in Balbriggan, in the mid-1990s) can still be felt in the monolithic grandeur of recent projects, in the sculpting of exposed concrete elements, and in the acute understanding of daring structural requirements – experiments in spanning, lifting and hovering elevate the work to new heights.

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / University campus for UTEC, Lima, Peru

UTEC, Lima sections – click to download

The deep, elemental connection to the cities’ bedrock in Milan, Lima and Toulouse evokes a primal desire of belonging, of matter compressed, of being pulled by forces of gravity and anchored into a solid ground. As opposed to processes of accretion, acts of removal imply belonging to something originally larger, heftier, sturdier. ‘The idea of carving means that you feel the force of the solid element within which you imagine you are making space’, explain the architects, speaking of how we cling to the earth, of mass bearing down and mass being borne up. Monumental in scale and ambition, Grafton’s architecture is never threatening, never screaming. 

The sunken (but not buried) lowest level of the Toulouse School of Economics is not a basement, as the architects rightly argue, preferring instead to call it the ‘garden level’. As their buildings erupt out of the ground, with light brought deep down into the excavated bedrock and landscapes beautifully trapped in the lower strata of cities, datums and traditional references are subverted. Hard, vertical boundaries dissolve to liberate a more exploded, fragmented sequence of spaces where conventional definitions of indoors and outdoors lose meaning.

It is no surprise Farrell and McNamara agree with Eileen Gray’s criticism of Le Corbusier (even though they were so strongly influenced by the work of the Swiss-French master as students that they were part of a group referred to as the ‘Corb Squad’) who confers too much importance on the exterior appearance of buildings, to the detriment of interior uses. ‘Formulas are nothing; life is everything’, claimed Gray in response. With the line between inside and out constantly delayed, the physical pleasures of architecture are brought to life in Grafton’s body of work: architecture as framework rather than pure image, as scaffold rather than aesthetic composition.

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / Toulouse School of Economics, France

‘How long can you delay that moment when you close the door on the city?’ asks Farrell. Pushing and dragging at the ground of Milan, letting the envelope’s ceppo stone pour off Bocconi University’s levitating office blocks and research spaces, and coat the pavement, the internal streets and the open piazza to create continuity, blending with the surrounding urban fabric. Grafton Architects’ university buildings become integral, three-dimensional pieces of city, permeating and permeated by their surroundings. 

For both Milan’s Bocconi University and Lima’s UTEC, this architectural intention is embodied by section drawings, sketched early on in the process, while in the Toulouse School of Economics, the concept is articulated in plan: three bifurcating limbs held tightly together by a transversal belt in the centre, and a ‘celestial cloister’ floating high above the main entrance. Although the plans reveal the organisation of the building, multiple sectional cuts are required to unearth the richness and complexity of the almost disorienting inner spaces – with the lift shaft a fixed point of reference.

Shaping both the inside and outside of buildings, Grafton Architects’ body of work is never self-referential. In their eyes, the role of the architect is that of ‘translator’ rather than outright author. From the very beginning, the practice chose to root itself in Dublin and rub out individual identities – the first office was on Grafton Street, hence the name of the practice. Disparate references, voices and images impregnate the imagination of the founders and invite themselves into the conversation, swiftly befriended and effortlessly adopted. ‘Listening to one city helps us hear another’, they explain, ‘feeling the culture of one city helps us absorb another’.

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / Toulouse School of Economics, France

Toulouse School of Economics plan – click to download

In their tightly packed Dublin office, photographic prints of the Skellig Michael monastery share wall space with the citadel of Machu Picchu. Perched on their twin-pinnacled crag adrift in the Atlantic, the Irish corbelled beehive huts look like not-so-distant cousins of the Incan dry-stone walls and terraces that sprawl the Andean Altiplano. Tales of the conquest of these extraordinary but inhospitable landscapes echo Grafton’s understanding of ‘architecture as geography’.

Grafton Architects is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s most prolific practices, with an upward spiral of foreign commissions and explorations following the pivotal Bocconi University. The size of the office remains controlled, with 39 employees today, yet the scale and scope of the current work in progress would suggest a significantly larger team. The Institut Mines-Télécom in the Paris-Saclay research park south of the French capital and the multi-purpose Town House at Kingston University, their first project in the UK, are both nearing completion; soon to be followed by the Marshall Building for the London School of Economics and the Dublin City Library.

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Retrospective: Grafton Architects / Institut Mines-Télécom, Saclay, France

Institut Mines-Télécom in Saclay, France, and currently in construction, will share the genes of the UTEC in Lima and the Toulouse School of Economics in its exposed carcass of walkways and staircases

Surprisingly, and so far at least, the work of the practice is not as widely published as I imagined – why don’t they have their dedicated issue of El Croquis? It’s not that they would reject the invitation, it’s that they have ‘other priorities’. Grafton Architects remain ostensibly discreet, concentrated on the task at hand. When appointed curators of the 2018 Venice Biennale, their ‘Freespace’ manifesto, far from eliciting unanimous backing, was criticised for its insipid tone and nebulous concepts.   

Yet all the criticism was accompanied by praise for the quality of their built work: how their ‘meaty, assertive’ buildings ‘span that delicate divide between the spectacular and the thoughtful to succeed both as social structures and images’. And while all this is true, ‘Freespace’ paradoxically starts to make sense when physically experiencing and exploring the three-dimensional worlds they have implanted in our cities, staunchly grafted onto existing ecosystems. Perhaps the language of buildings is simply more potent than the human capacity to translate architecture into words. 

This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today 

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