Dublin-based practice O’Donnell + Tuomey wins flagship Sheffield retail scheme

This month, Ireland’s star architectural duo, Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey, have established an impressive double bridgehead with their first two projects in the UK. On behalf of their Dublin-based practice, O’Donnell + Tuomey, the pair have won, by competitive interview, the commission to design the flagship 24,000 m2 John Lewis department store in Hammerson’s ambitious 80,000 m2 New Retail Quarter for Sheffield. It followed quickly on from the practice’s appointment to design the £3.5m Photographers’ Gallery in London’s Soho, also the result of a competitive interview.

The practice’s international reputation rests on its cultural and educational buildings. As well as a gallery, archive and school of photography completed in Dublin’s Temple Bar in 1996, they include the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork, which scooped four British and Irish awards and was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize last year.

By contrast, the practice’s selection by Hammerson represents a breakthrough into the bigger, cash-rich world of commercial development. For Hammerson’s side of the deal, it is not so much a new departure as the continuation of its desire to use avant-garde architects – a trend that began with the appointment of Foreign Office Architects for the proposed John Lewis store in Leicester.

John Tuomey and Sheila O’Donnell run their compact but internationally acclaimed architectural practice from a converted schoolhouse in Dublin
John Tuomey and Sheila O’Donnell run their compact but internationally acclaimed architectural practice from a converted schoolhouse in Dublin

We were taught by a flying circus of British architects, so there’s a sense of attachment

John Tuomey

Aged 53 and 52 respectively, both O’Donnell and Tuomey were born, bred and educated in Ireland. Even so, winning work in Britain is to some extent a homecoming for them. “I had my formative years in London, when I worked for Jim Stirling on the Stuttgart art gallery for five years until 1981,” says Tuomey. “Sheila followed on from me in the same role. And at University College Dublin, we were both taught by a flying circus of British architects. So there’s a sense of attachment to London and the British scene.”

The international connections stretch further than Britain. As well as teaching slots for the two partners in Dublin, England and the USA, the practice has been commissioned to masterplan the regeneration of Delft port in the Netherlands. And winning a total of 40 international awards and commendations since it was set up in 1988 has done a lot to spread the practice’s reputation. “It has always been the position of our practice to reach out from Ireland,” says Tuomey. “This keeps us from being provincial.”

The pair run their practice in the classic mode of an architectural studio. The 12 staff and two partners fit snugly into an open-plan converted schoolhouse near St Stephen’s Green in downtown Dublin, which provides a convivial setting for drawing, model-making and discussion. The modest size of the practice and compact office allow both partners to “maintain a direct involvement and design control of each building project”.

As for their approach to architectural design, Tuomey says: “Stirling was our mentor. And he gave us the confidence to start up on our own.” The Stirling influence is evident in the way their buildings fit into historical surroundings and in their combination of standard rectilinear and unexpected polygonal shapes. No doubt reigned in by their academic experience, the pair take a more rigorously intellectual approach than Stirling and are noted for meticulous attention to detail.