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The right moves: Founders of Grafton are designing for the future on a truly global stage


Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

Today, Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are in Venice for the launch of the world's largest architectural exhibition, the Biennalle ­­- the first time that this iconic event has been curated by Irish architects. This red-letter day for the founders of Grafton Architects comes just days after the firm won the RIAI Gold Medal for Architecture, for its design of Bocconi University in Milan.

I chatted with the founders about their winning formula. The firm was founded in 1978 and has been involved in a range of commercial, residential and public projects. Shelley McNamara told me that as a small firm in international terms, there was an element of luck about getting on the tender list for Bocconi University. They were teaching at a university in Switzerland and met an architect from Milan, who subsequently invited them to compete for the instruction.

The entire project comprised buildings totalling 65,000 sq m - their largest previous scheme was 4,250 sq m. The success of the design has seen them win a series of major public projects worldwide, including two universities, in London and Peru. The latter development involved 1,000 builders on site and called for different thinking in "designing spaces to reflect the local climate".Yvonne Farrell told me that Irish architecture has a very high reputation abroad but that a lot of excellent smaller firms are being excluded from public work because of EU procurement regulations. Indeed, despite its success abroad, the firm finds it difficult to get on the shortlist for university projects in Ireland.

The pair are clearly passionate about their work. Farrell tells me that there has to be a balance between the commercial and the artistic. "Architecture is not an easy profession," she says. "We work very hard to keep the artistic element alive - if it's not there, you can't have architecture. Architecture is a 3D space making reality, not just for the eye, but for living in. Architecture is both a civic and cultural responsibility."

They stress that their success abroad is founded on a reputation of 35 years working in Ireland.

"We are seriously grounded in the practicalities of construction," says McNamara. One such scheme is the redevelopment of the ESB headquarters on Fitzwilliam St, Dublin 2, where they are working alongside architects O'Mahony Pike.

Farrell and McNamara emphasise the importance of developing a team of "very able and passionate people," whom they are committed to "involving, understanding and developing". Staff numbers are now at a high of 40 people and "there is no, us and them."

They tell me that now is a time for thinking about how will we live in the future. "The difference between architecture and building is that a building keeps the rain out. But architecture is trying to find something that hasn't been invented yet - it's a futuristic thing, it's the mother of all arts".

An authoritative blend of the practical and the artistic, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara's hearts are clearly in improving life through their design, as they represent Ireland on a world stage.

Garden Centres Become Retail Destinations

It was a great pleasure to be the after-dinner speaker at the staff awards ceremony for garden centre specialists Arboretum last Friday. The multiple award-winning company was founded 41 years ago in Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow and in 2015 bought a six-acre garden centre in Kilquade, County Wicklow, incorporating the National Garden Centre, which is being redeveloped.

Arboretum Co-Owner Fergal Doyle told me that the company is seeing above average growth in turnover and that a major part of that comes from creating retailing destinations at the centres. For example, in Carlow, the centre sells furniture, fashion goods, kitchen products and gift items and 30 percent of turnover there is generated by the cafe. A large restaurant has also been added in Kilquade and a series of events and exhibitions are held, to maximise footfall and interaction with customers.

Cara O'Hagan R.I.P.

The property world has been saddened by the passing of Cara O'Hagan, head of the commercial real estate department at law firm, Matheson.

Named lawyer of the year (Ireland) for Real Estate Law in the Best Lawyers Ireland 2018, amongst many accolades, Cara was a highly respected lawyer who was held in high regard by her colleagues, her peers and her clients.

May she rest in peace.

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