Women in Architecture Awards

Irish architect Sheila O'Donnell wins this year's Women In Architecture top honor

Irish architect Sheila O'Donnell is being recognized for her firm's work on the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. (Tam Bujnovszky/Courtesy O'Donnell + Tuomey)

Irish architect Sheila O’Donnell has claimed the top honor at this year’s Women in Architecture (WIA) awards, an annual prize hosted by Architects’ Journal and The Architectural Review. Named Architect of the Year 2019, O’Donnell heads up the 31-year-old practice O’Donnell + Tuomey alongside partner John Tuomey.

O’Donnell is being recognized specifically for her firm’s 2016 renovation and expansion of the Central European University in Budapest. The project is part of a multi-phase, campus-wide masterplan to connect and consolidate the institution’s physical footprint, which sits on a World Heritage site, while dually elevating its design with a 21st-century scheme.

O’Donnell + Tuomey created a 376,700-square-foot vision that seamlessly linked the historic structures on the urban campus, all of which were previously disconnected from one another and included individual entrances. The design team also added two new contemporary buildings that became the public face of the school.

Photo of Sheila O'Donnell

Sheila O’Donnell (Courtesy RIBA)

One of those new buildings now serves as the main entrance to the university. Housing a giant, light-filled library and learning commons over a multi-purpose auditorium, it features warm yet bright minimalist materials that allow the structure to stand in contrast to the surrounding ornamented, sandstone buildings. The new construction boasts a geometric facade framed with local limestone and steel, two materials that are also used within the building, alongside slatted timber and concrete. Bespoke furniture featuring similar, natural-looking products dot the public spaces inside.

Exterior photo of Central European University

The new main entrance to CEU features a geometric limestone facade. (Tam Bujnovszky/Courtesy O’Donnell + Tuomey)

The result of O’Donnell + Tuomey’s intervention is a university center that’s not only easier to navigate, but also an institution that’s stitched more thoughtfully into the urban fabric of central Budapest. The new structures add a modern feel to the historic site, thanks in part to the inclusion of a dramatic, pitched glass roof that hovers over the library and provides ample light, as well as a series of red-coated metal stairs. The highly sustainable structures also feature landscaped roof gardens that reduce heat gain and give views of the city’s downtown skyline. Courtyards in between the buildings also provide natural ventilation and respite for those indoors.

Photo of roof garden at CEU

Roof gardens top each structure at the university offering views of the city skyline. (Tam Bujnovszky/Courtesy O’Donnell + Tuomey)

The Women in Architecture Awards jury said O’Donnell exhibited a clear passion for constructing an improved physical environment for the university that resulted in a high-quality building people can admire. “She is a role model for young women in architecture,” the jury announced in a statement. “Sheila O’Donnell did not have to break the glass ceiling—she and John Tuomey created a new reality.”

As of early December, the university announced it will be moving its operations to its sister site, a facility in Vienna, in the near future. It’s unclear how O’Donnell + Tuomey’s update to the school’s Budapest location will be used once classes cease.

Red staircase at Central European University

Bold, red-coated metal is used throughout the facility in a series of staircases. (Tam Bujnovszky/Courtesy O’Donnell + Tuomey)

Other finalists for WIA Architect of the Year 2019 included Ellen van Loon of OMA, noted for the Quater National Library in Doha; Eva Prats of Flores & Prats for the Casal Balaguer Cultural Centre in Palma de Mallorca; and Carme Pigem of RCR Arquitectes for the De Krook Library in Ghent.

Beijing-based architect Xu Tiantian, founder of the firm DnA (Design and Architecture), was also awarded the Moira Gemmill Prize for Emerging Architecture at this year’s ceremony. The honor, which goes to a woman designer under 45 years old, was presented to Xu for her body of work, which includes the Hakka Indenture Museum, a tofu factory, and the Wang Jing Memorial Hall, among others.

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