DUBLIN-BASED Grafton Architects, run by Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, have scooped the first World Building of the Year award at the inaugural World Festival of Architecture for their new faculty building at Bocconi University in Milan.
The awards are the biggest and most wide-ranging architectural awards programme in the world, designed to "celebrate the work, concerns and aspirations of the international architectural community" according to its director, Paul Finch.
At a time when many architectural practices in Ireland - including Grafton - have been laying off staff due to the downturn in the building industry, the news from the festival in Barcelona was particularly welcome.
A total of 224 buildings in 17 categories from 43 countries made it on to the shortlist. Grafton had already won the premier award in the "learning" category for their mammoth Milan project and then went on to win the overall award.
They beat such luminaries as Foster + Partners, who won the "new and old" award for the Arlene Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and Zaha Hadid, whose Norpark Cable Railway in Austria won the transport award.
Other finalists included a women's health centre in Burkina Faso by Italian architects FAREstudio, a sheep stable in the Netherlands by 70F Architecture, and BMW Welt, a multi-functional "customer experience and exhibition centre" in Munich by Coop Himmelb(l)au.
The jury - chaired by Robert Stern, dean of Yale School of Architecture - included Cecil Balmond, of Ove Arup Partners; Ricky Burdett, professor of architecture at London School of Economics, critic Charles Jencks, and Suha Ozkan, of the XXI Architecture Centre in Ankara.
In a unanimous decision, the jury gave the World Building of the Year award to Grafton Architects, saying they had succeeded in "distilling the essence of the city" of Milan into a confident, contemporary form with a "magical subterranean realm".
Bocconi University's faculty building, which will be officially opened on Friday, includes offices for 1,000 teaching staff suspended above subterranean conference halls and lecture theatres, courtyards and concourses, all accessible to the public.
Mr Finch, who is editor of the London-based Architectural Review, said Grafton had "opened up the past of the city with a 21st century attitude" with a building that had "the capacity to make a profound difference to the lives of its users".
With allusions to Modernist megastructures, Prof Stern said "it's one of those great buildings that allows you to see a moment of the past in a totally fresh way", while Mr Balmond commented that its "3-D design" was "effortless, with no histrionics".
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara were delighted to win such an accolade for their biggest-ever project.
"We were trying to make the university a miniature city where public realm connects with the rest of the city and the campus provides a window to Milan," they said in a joint statement.
Sean Ó Laoire, president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, said it was an "amazing and well-deserved recognition" and a "reminder to the Government that the quality of architecture and quality of education are intimately linked".
The Irish Times