Sandra O’Connell interviews Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, curators of the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. In 2018 the Biennale Architettura in Venice will shine a spotlight on Ireland as Grafton Architects’ founders, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, are curating the 16th International Architecture Exhibition organized by La Biennale di Venezia. This is the first time Irish curators have been appointed and a significant moment in Irish architecture and culture. Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are taking over the baton from a line-up of distinguished architects such as Pritzker Prize Winners Rem Koolhaas (Netherlands); Kazuyo Sejima (Japan); Alejandro Aravena (Chile); and RIBA Gold Medal recipient Sir David Chipperfield. Architecture Ireland has interviewed Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara on the eve of their significant Biennale year 2018.
Architecture Ireland: Congratulations Yvonne and Shelly on the great accolade of being the curators of the Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice – how do you consider the significance of your appointment?
Yvonne: When we received the phone call from the President of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Barrata, last December we felt both honoured and surprised. We consider ourselves the products of the Irish architectural education system and our appointment is the recognition of the ability of Irish architects working all over the world. Irish architects are viewed internationally as makers of quality buildings and as having a global thinking ability.
AI: As curators, you are responsible for setting the theme, delivering a large exhibition in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini and the Arsenale (a space larger than O’Connell Street), producing a catalogue and devising a six-month programme of events – how do you approach this huge task and what is your brief?
Yvonne: The brief we have been given is to curate an exhibition of a high standard that is relevant to the world. As Irish curators we represent of course certain Irish cultural values – such as the importance of place – but we take these values to a global space, showing colleagues all over the world who are making great work. Being the Architecture Biennale curators is a caretaking role about what is happening on the earth. The earth is ultimately our client. Since our appointment we have been like detectives, exploring the work of colleagues all over the world. We are taking the role of curators very seriously and in the spirit of doing it as best as we can.
Shelley: It’s important to mention that we are not choosing the content of the national pavilions and were not involved in the selection of the participants of the Irish pavilion Free Market. Our role is to encourage other nations to respond to a theme. We wrote the manifesto FreeSpace as a robust document to make people aware of the theme and are using it as a way of structuring individual responses to our theme.
AI: FreeSpace seems to have a number of strands to it – from the physical ‘free space’ that good design creates in buildings, places, towns and cities to the more spiritual quality of ‘architecture’s capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project’. When did you first encounter this theme in your own work and in that of others?
Yvonne: The Spanish architect Alejandro de la Sota said that architects should make as much nothing as possible. This has been a theme in our work for a long time but we became particularly aware of it in Università Bocconi in Milan. It is the idea that the space between is the really important thing; the empty space holds it all together. In Bocconi you have one world of 1000 academic offices and the other world of the aula magna; the space between these two is something even more powerful and connects the university with the city. The Japanese have a similar concept of empty space– they consider that the value is not the vessel but the void that the vessel holds.
Shelley: In an earlier project – the Parsons Building in Trinity, which houses the Department of Mechanical Engineering – we also made a big structure to house a void. In the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan, we created a large foyer space. Originally this project was to include a courthouse and an arts centre and we located the courthouse on top of the theatre. The idea was that the courtroom, which is a kind of theatre, could be used by the arts centre when the court was not sitting. When the use changed, what was designed as a courthouse was converted into an exhibition space. As a practice we are very interested in structure and the section. This is what inspired our project UTEC in Lima and our research into the work of Paulo Mendes da Rocha in South America.
AI: You showed the work of the Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha alongside your own in the Central Pavilion at David Chipperfield’s 2012 Architecture Biennale, Common Ground. You won a Silver Lion for this exhibition. How has it influenced FreeSpace?
Yvonne: It is interesting how one thing leads to another. FreeSpace definitely has its roots in our work for Common Ground. There was a real generosity to that theme. Our research into the work of Paulo Mendes da Rocha for Common Ground was an interesting experiment for us at the time when we designed UTEC in Lima. We were fascinated by the structures of his Brazilian football stadiums and started to redraw them from Google maps, as we did not have the drawings. When we contacted Paulo Mendes da Rocha to ask if we could explore and present his work at the Venice Biennale, he said he was very honoured. There was no hesitancy on his part – just ‘free’ generosity. He said that architects don’t ‘own’ their work. At the same time, we felt it was important for architects to declare their sources; one is always learning from other architects.
Shelley: We also worked with the sculptor Eileen McDonagh who made a sculpture of St. Peter’s Church in Sao Paolo by Mendes da Rocha. Eileen’s limestone model rested on one slender column and she was fascinated how well the structure had been worked out in the original design, held up by a concrete column.
AI: Do you consider research and making exhibitions central to the work of Grafton Architects?
Shelley: Grafton Architects have always been involved in exhibitions of architecture. We believe that architecture needs to be communicated and valued beyond our profession– this is why Open House Dublin is such a great success. One of our early exhibitions was Making a Modern Street with Group 91 and even before that Yvonne and Michael de Courcy curated an exhibition called Traditions and Directions. We participated in The Lives of Spaces, the Irish pavilion at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, and showed in David Chipperfield’s Biennale in 2012 (Common Ground) and Alejandro Aravena’s 2016 Biennale (Reporting from the Front). We also exhibited in recent years at the Royal Academy of Arts and the V&A in London.
AI: In a lecture at Columbia University (20 November 2013), you described the role of the architect as ‘interpreter’. You said: ‘We see architecture as the silent language that speaks, and so the role of the architect is to translate “need” into built form, into the silent language of space.’ Does the role of the curator follow a similar path – is the curator an interpreter?
Yvonne: Brian Friel’s play Translations is about the loss of language and loss of meaning. In that play, English surveyors record the sound of Irishplace names phonetically, inadvertently losing memories and meaning. As architects we take ‘sounds’ and find a meaning that represents the dreams of the people. Architecture creates a syntax based on the power of an idea and the culture of place. In this sense each project is a new invention. The Biennale seen together is also an invention and as curators we are trying to find our current invention. We find that the themes that are meaningful are those that communicate with people as directly as possible.
Yvonne: Architects are not a closed profession; we are the most synthesised profession and unbelievably impactful. We can be interpreted as something only for the rich but we fundamentally disagree with this. Architecture is an art form but also relevant for society. In a sense our profession is like an enormous tea cosy – it embraces everything.
AI: You have described your approach to architectural research before as one that looks at fragments, that is non- linear, more of a collage – how will this approach relate to the Venice Biennale?
Shelley: We are really interested in this non-linear idea. It takes a while to realise how ‘chaotic’ architectural design is; all these fragments that are floating around. The architect has to make some sort of a construct from it, make it into a building. You have to worry about the soil tank at the same time as making a great design, Architecture has to do an ordinary job as well as an extraordinary cultural one. It’s a crazy way to work – these fragments can have an incredible power.
AI: How difficult is it to run an architectural practice and deliver the 16th International Architecture Exhibition?
Shelley and Yvonne: It is challenging and stretches you, as we also have a number of important projects on site: the Institut Mines Telecom and Université Toulouse in France, Kingston University in London and the ESB headquarters (with OMP Architects) in Dublin. We are working with a great team though – both in our office and in the Biennale office, led by the President of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Baratta. It is also very rewarding work, you engage with people globally that you never knew about before. The Architecture Biennale has such a long- term agenda. Paolo Baratta describes architecture as a ‘neglected goddess that needs rescuing’.
AI: What can Ireland do better in the future in terms of architecture?
Yvonne: There has been great investment by the Irish Government in the Arts. It is very important that the Government continues to support architecture.
AI: While the Architecture Biennale content won’t be unveiled until Spring 2018, what is the general impression that you hope people will leave with?
Yvonne: FreeSpace is about generosity; architecture as free gift. The title does not immediately tell you what it is all about. It is important it has the words ‘space’ and ‘free’. We believe the more that is being built, the more architects have to define what is given back to citizens. This is what architecture is about. We hope the manifesto will be a source of courage. We also hope that that the manifesto will bring out generosity among colleagues.
Shelley: As mentioned earlier, we consider the earth as our client and the exhibition has to respond to global issues, such as global warming. By 2050 it is expected that 70% will live in cities. The role of architects has been reducing and yet our role should be expanding to address these issues. It will be interesting to see what conversations the Biennale gets going and what comes out afterwards. We hope people will find aspects of the Biennale interesting and uplifting.
AI: Yvonne and Shelley, thank you for the interview.