'The only brief was to express our values': Grafton Architects on curating the Venice Biennale


Before the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale opened, we met with the curators, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects, to discuss the practice's work, alongside the perils and pleasures of bringing the Biennale to fruition


Words by Veronica Simpson
Portrait photography by Jess Lowe

To embark on a conversation with Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell is to jump onto a gentle rollercoaster, filled with architectural insights, poetic and literary references, and philosophical speculation. Not for nothing are these founding directors of Dublin’s Grafton Architects referred to as powerful thinkers. There is nothing gentle about the vistas: such an array of big prospects are laid before you on this rollercoaster, there is barely time to recover from one peak (from the gravity-defying, concrete poetry of Paolo Mendes da Rocha’s Brazilian structures) or plummet (the pressures of working in a climate that prioritises commerce over culture) to muster a question before McNamara or Farrell — whoever wasn’t speaking last — brings another fascinating perspective into play. The gentleness is in the even-handed, rolling way in which their dialogue progresses: it is more of a shared monologue, speaking of their long and steady friendship and shared stewardship of this practice over 40 years.

Though the duo has just concluded a multi-country promotional tour for the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, of which they are the curators — which included the stressful and unaccustomed business of serious fundraising (successfully concluded, largely thanks to the help of the Irish Government) — their enthusiasm for the project is undimmed. A highpitched hum of activity in their offices gives away the intensity of work that is being conducted alongside this curatorial marathon; a reminder that to agree to the Biennale’s curation, as directors of a thriving and productive practice, is no small undertaking. ‘When we’re not stressed, we’re really enjoying the whole process,’ says McNamara.

Università Luigi Bocconi in Milan (completed 2008). The building is set back from surrounding streets to make a public space. Image Credit: Paolo TonatoUniversità Luigi Bocconi in Milan (completed 2008). The building is set back from surrounding streets to make a public space. Image Credit: Paolo Tonato

When Paolo Baratta, the director of Venice’s Biennale network, made that crucial phone call, it was a few nights before Christmas 2016. The practice had just won four major projects — two in London, one in Paris, one in Dublin — but they didn’t hesitate. ‘Sometimes life brings you challenges when you are ready to take them,’ says McNamara. By way of illustration, she adds that the competition win for Milan’s Università Luigi Bocconi (completed 2008) was ‘a huge shock to us. It was a 45–65,000 sq m building and the largest we had done at that point was 4,000 sq m — and that wasn’t built yet.’ Not only did they accept that challenge, but their building went on to win pretty much all the major accolades going, including the RIAI Gold Medal for Architecture, and 2008’s inaugural World Architecture Festival (WAF) prize.

It is soon apparent that they relish jumping off at the deep end, and pushing themselves creatively and intellectually. An hour and a half in their company is enough to see that curiosity, analysis, interrogation, engagement and articulation are meat and drink to these two — fuelled, in part, by their ongoing commitment to teaching, which began only a year after graduating (as is the norm with Irish architecture schools). They talk warmly of the value of having over 30 years of conversations about architecture, with students and peers alike, as a result.

With the Università Luigi Bocconi, Grafton architects wanted to create a building that felt like a solid piece of city, as enduring as those around it. Image Credit: Federico BrunetteWith the Università Luigi Bocconi, Grafton architects wanted to create a building that felt like a solid piece of city, as enduring as those around it. Image Credit: Federico Brunette

‘If you look at the kind of architects we are, from the very beginning we’ve been involved with trying to connect with the public,’ says Farrell. ‘We don’t believe that architecture is a rare and rarified discipline that’s kind of a secret cabal. We really want to try and make the most influential art form understood by a wider public… The Biennale is a bigger venue than anything we’ve done before. But all our lives we’ve been interested in the communication of architectural ideas.’ The brief for this huge undertaking was simplicity itself. Says McNamara: ‘The only brief was to express our values, and to be ourselves. That’s it, really.’

Their response was to draw up a manifesto, the primary concern of which is how to make more of public space — even when it’s private space. They have coined a new term ‘freespace’, as the theme of their Biennale, to encourage ownership of what It is that draws us to parks, public piazzas, streets and alcoves, where we feel at liberty to stroll, sit and mingle. The language used to describe architecture was picked apart in the process.

Inside, the concrete stair hall expresses Grafton Architects’ intention to make the interior feel like an open marketplace for ideas and exchange. Image Credit: Federico BrunetteInside, the concrete stair hall expresses Grafton Architects’ intention to make the interior feel like an open marketplace for ideas and exchange. Image Credit: Federico Brunette

‘In the manifesto we were very conscious of trying to use words that were accessible beyond the profession,’ explains Farrell.

‘If architecture is to be successful then the general public needs ways in, to be equal, because they are the recipients.’ She continues: ‘Another thing we really want to highlight is the earth as client. Every time you specify something you’re touching the resources of the world… Seemingly sand is becoming an increasingly precious commodity. So, in the future, every time we specify concrete, we have to be aware that it has an impact on some beach somewhere. And if we’re going to use these resources we should put them to the best possible use.’

Having mustered a manifesto, the challenge was then to identify and invite their chosen participants, based on architects and projects that exhibited that sought-after generosity. Says Farrell: ‘There are 195 countries in the world. We started off with all of them. But in the end, we are human, and we had to make choices based on buildings that we knew ourselves, or that we were sure had the qualities we were looking for… I suppose we were like surgeons trying to find a component within certain samples that would allow you to say to a non-architect: “Here’s a very interesting, very large-scale project that has this cultural component, or a small project that has this beautiful material; just touch that material.” And that’s the span — from the micro to the macro — that we wanted.’

A dedicated team was set up to conduct the research. ‘We had two architects from Grafton who are directly involved full time — but otherwise it had to be a separate team,’ explains McNamara. ‘We had four large building projects on the go at the same time. So our practice had to keep going and not be pressured.’ Their old office, in Grafton Street, was handed over to this team, while the rest of the office moved just around the corner to a fully utilised warren of rooms in a tall, 19th-century building on College Green.

The Arsenale complex of former shipyards and armories in Venice, constructed in the 12th century, became one of the largest scale industrial enterprises in history. Image Credit: Andrea Avezzù / Courtesy La Biennale Di VeneziaThe Arsenale complex of former shipyards and armories in Venice, constructed in the 12th century, became one of the largest scale industrial enterprises in history. Image Credit: Andrea Avezzù / Courtesy La Biennale Di Venezia

Selecting the participants was one of the toughest aspects of the job. ‘At a human level it was a difficult tapestry,’ admits Farrell. ‘Once you choose something, just on the edges of that choice there are 10 (projects) that are almost there… We send our respects to people on that edge.’ Adds McNamara: ‘We are hoping that the people we didn’t choose will visit because their values are represented. And we hope they will feel things they value are there.’

One month before the Biennale’s opening, and after 18 months of intense activity, what do they think the resulting exhibition reveals? ‘It’s a celebration of architectural ability to think of everything,’ says Farrell, ‘from the handle on the door to dealing with nature’s forces such as flooding. I think it’s about the architect as a contributor to society. We have to be careful that society doesn’t undervalue that capacity to be a cultural generalist. We realise what an amazing profession it is, when you see the spectrum: we are social engineers, we’re scientists; the profession has incredible remit. But what’s happening in the industry of architecture is that architects are being squeezed and squeezed out... So I suppose what we are trumpeting in the Biennale is that architecture matters. It affects every single person on the earth, not only spatially, but in terms of materials and how people will live in the future.’

McNamara says: ‘There’s also the question of beauty. And the world is full of beauty. It was very interesting when we were writing the catalogue, because we had to write texts for each architect we had chosen, as to our reason for choosing them. Some work we knew better than others, and some we didn’t, so we listened to their lectures and talks and writings. We saw a clip of Rozana Montiel from Mexico talking about working with a community in a really impoverished situation. She said that architects should always make the case for beauty. It’s not about luxury, but about the beauty of simple things.’

Farrell (left) and McNamara in the Dublin offices they had to decamp to, on College Green, in order to give the Biennale team enough space in their old Grafton Street space. Image Credit: Jess LoweFarrell (left) and McNamara in the Dublin offices they had to decamp to, on College Green, in order to give the Biennale team enough space in their old Grafton Street space. Image Credit: Jess Lowe

Communicating that beauty — and the architect’s unique ability to highlight or conjure it from raw ingredients — fed into an ongoing conversation with Biennale director Baratta and his team, of whom the pair speak very highly. As an economist, and former minister in various roles with several Italian governments, Baratta has a keen understanding of supply and demand. For architecture, he told them their task was to grow desire. ‘If you grow desire, people will start to want architecture,’ McNamara summarises. They are very clear that the desire should go beyond a superficial appreciation of contemporary architecture as a shiny status symbol, and move to an understanding of how architecture frames and fosters experiences, for better or worse.

How much a single exhibition — even on this scale — can do to affect the issues is a problem. McNamara says: ‘Someone told me, architecture can only be represented in buildings. So what is the role of an exhibition of architecture? It’s very tricky territory. We found that with Sensing Spaces [the show at the Royal Academy in 2014, in which Grafton Architects participated]. You are halfway between a stage set and architecture. We were trying to steer out of that stage set mentality and make something more architectural. With the Biennale, it’s kind of extraordinary that you get over 100 architects coming together with huge passion and energy for architecture. Not for making money. It’s not a fair — it’s an exhibition of ideas, and thinking and struggles and failures and successes. When you think about the value that’s placed on culture in our society — or the lack of value that’s placed on culture in our society — that in itself is hopeful.’

Adds Farrell: ‘We are realists and practical people but we realise that hope has to be nurtured. Architecture is an optimistic profession. Even the most difficult projects have an ingredient of optimism. When we talk to our clients, there’s a belief in the future, and [with educational buildings] the hope of finding a component that will suit the student of the future. Projects take a long time — five, ten years. Every building is about more than keeping the rain out.’

University Campus UTEC, in Lima (completed 2015), was conceived by Grafton Architects as a ‘man made cliff’. The building’s porous structure allows sea breezes to percolate. Image Credit: Iwan BaanUniversity Campus UTEC, in Lima (completed 2015), was conceived by Grafton Architects as a ‘man made cliff’. The building’s porous structure allows sea breezes to percolate. Image Credit: Iwan Baan

Much thought has also been given to the part played by each of the two disparate spaces at their disposal in Venice: one, the architectural theme park of the pavilion-encrusted Giardini and the other, the Corderie — the vast, brick shed in the Arsenale, which Farrell has dubbed ‘a vessel of light’. When Farrell and McNamara spoke at the March Biennale press event in London, they talked of trying to make these locations more of a piece with the city around them. How did they fare in this respect?

‘One of the first things we asked to do was go and see the buildings empty,’ says McNamara. ‘Then we looked at them in the context of Venice. The only other thing on the scale of the Arsenale is the temporary bridge across to San Giorgio Redentore.’ Says Farrell: ‘As we have spent many months preparing this presentation, it becomes clearer and clearer to us that the buildings are participants. We use the term sometimes that architecture is the silent language that speaks. Don’t forget that the building is there. And it was there before us and will hopefully outlive us all.’

Unsurprisingly, continuity is another major theme from their manifesto. And this is writ large in a special project they have orchestrated for the 2018 Biennale, called Close Encounters. They have selected 16 practices from their Irish peers — among them Carr Cotter & Naessens, Heneghan Peng Architects and Donaghy & Dimond — and paired them with 16 inspirational projects from the last century which, in their view, deliver that quality of beauty, inclusivity and ingenuity in spades. These include Casa Luis Barragán in Mexico, by Luis Barragán; the Maison du Peuple in Clichy, by Jean Prouvé, Eugène Beaudouin, Marcel Lods and Vladimir Bodiansky; and Jean Rénaudie’s Centre Jeanne Hachette, at Ivry-sur-Seine.

The empty Corderie space of the Arsenale in Venice. Photo Credit: Giulio Squillacciotti, Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

All the practices have to find some way of responding to those projects — duplicating an experience which Grafton Architects thoroughly enjoyed at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, when they were invited by that year’s director David Chipperfield to participate, responding to his theme of Common Ground. They chose several of Mendes da Rocha’s buildings, exploring links between his sensibility of architecture ‘as an instrument for configuring the land’ and theirs, through two schemes they were developing in Lima (the multiple award winning UTEC building) and Toulouse. They called their offering Architecture as New Geography. It won the Silver Lion.

Says McNamara: ‘All those architects whose projects we chose for Close Encounters, some are no longer alive, but for us they are absolutely alive. When you think of what work you want to have in an exhibition, we wanted that work to be there, and not just paying homage. For us they are part of our architectural reference points, and they are as alive now as when we first discovered them… The point we are trying to make is that the way that you read the tradition of architecture is crucial to the way that you continue to make work.’

The idea of translating the past into the present goes deep with this pair. Through Close Encounters, translation is presented as a valuable part of practice. Adds McNamara: ‘There’s a wonderful essay by Fulvio Irace about Milan… He says there are two words very similar in Italian: tradure and traduire. One means betray, the other means translate. You have to betray your source to translate it accurately. If you translate it word by word, you won’t get the meaning. Reading architectural examples, it’s not about presenting the project as it is. You have to use that form or a misrepresentation of it in order to make a point. The other thing that encouraged us to do this was, when we asked Paolo Mendes da Rocha — who we never met, not until after the Biennale — if he was OK with this, he said: “Do what you like.” Yvonne said: “Is it not a bit dangerous that you give two strangers from across the oceans permission to do what they like with your work?” And he said: “I like danger,” which was great.’

Farrell adds: ‘He also said: “Architects don’t own their work. It’s for sharing.”’

Grafton Architects’ contribution to the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, inspired by Paolo Mendes da RochaImage Credit: Francesco Galli / Courtesy La Biennale Di VeneziaGrafton Architects’ contribution to the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, inspired by Paolo Mendes da RochaImage Credit: Francesco Galli / Courtesy La Biennale Di Venezia

Their point, ultimately, is that danger is something architects have to embrace in order to evolve — and perhaps also for the profession to evolve. ‘We take all these disparate fragments, which are floating around in our heads when we start a project, and each time you don’t know what to do, which is always terrifying,’ says McNamara. ‘And you have to find some kind of construct that will give a hierarchy or a rationale to these feelings you want to include in the project. So we have to tell ourselves the story of what are we trying to do. We are inventing worlds, actually, with the awful pressure of time and money and fear that goes with that. It’s a dangerous business. Building is dangerous. Things go wrong. And you have to stand aside from that.’ Says Farrell: ‘Every time we do a project in a particular place you leap from being a tourist to being a participant in that particular culture. It’s a great honour to be trusted to do a building… You are gambling with their city, with their institution.’

McNamara adds: ‘One of the things that we have learned — and tried to express through the exhibition — is the power of empowering local communities to make things for themselves. Look at the work of Diébédo Frances Kéré, Marina Tabassum, Rozana Montiel. They are incredible architects who go off and build things from nothing, giving communities that sense of pride and empowerment.’

But will non-architect communities be present at this Biennale? How does one get ordinary civilians through the door in order to read all these beautifully translated projects — or, more to the point, the planners or developers who can authorise or bankroll a better way of doing things?

This question troubles the pair. ‘Each architect who visits the Biennale brings their own team — that could include planners, clients,’ says McNamara. ‘We are interested in the long haul,’ adds Farrell. ‘We would like a legacy that continues [after the Biennale], not just a fantastic six months. The other thing is we would like it to be seen in a similar way as the slow food movement. Not architecture as bells and whistles. We need to take it easy, and quietly, and mull. There are words we need to use more often in modern society. The analysis [we present] is trying to gut the DNA of projects so you can share the experience with others, both within and outside of the profession.’

As for disseminating these insights, she tells me, with a laugh: ‘That’s your job, missus.’





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