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Alumni Kate Orff, Damon Rich named 2017 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellows

Two Harvard University Graduate School of Design alumni are among the 24 recipients of the 2017 MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “MacArthur Genius” grant. The two honorees, landscape architect Kate Orff (MLA '97) and designer and urban planner Damon Rich (LF ’07), will each receive a $625,000 award to be paid out over five years.

The MacArthur Fellowship award is intended to recognize “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” the Foundation writes. The Fellowship award is geared toward helping Fellows advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers, according to the Foundation.

Kate Orff at work. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Kate Orff at work. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Orff is the first landscape architect to be honored with a genius grant in the program’s 37-year history. As founding principal of SCAPE, a landscape architecture and urban design studio, Orff's work ranges from large-scale coastal infrastructure initiatives to the design of city parks, as well as book-length publications, museum exhibitions, and self-guided podcast tours that invite city dwellers to explore the natural histories of their regions. Orff is also an associate professor and director of the Urban Design Program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University.

Through her work, Orff aims to envision new forms of public space that reveal and revive the hidden ecological systems underlying our built environments and encourage urban residents to become active stewards of their natural surroundings. Her research and design practice addresses the challenges posed by urbanization and climate change (such as biodiversity loss and rising sea levels) through in-depth collaborations with ecologists, engineers, educators, artists, and community members that aim to make our urban habitats more adaptive and resilient.

Rich is a designer and urban planner creating vivid and witty strategies to help residents exercise power within the public and private processes that shape our cities. Trained as an architect, he is committed to enlivening bureaucratic systems and applies a democratic approach to a wide range of projects, including designs for public spaces and exhibitions, civics curricula, and regulatory systems.

Damon Rich at work. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Damon Rich at work. Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

In 1997, Rich founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) and, in collaboration with a group of other educators, advocates, artists, and architects, developed a roster of programs to engage community-based organizations and public school students in explorations of such topics as tenant rights, affordable housing, and infrastructure design. In 2015, Rich co-founded (with Jae Shin) the independent design studio Hector in order to expand the reach of his practice, and he is currently at work on projects in Newark, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Attuned to the many competing interests at play in the urban planning process, Rich's work celebrates visions of communities and residents who are often excluded and advances the roles of design and democracy in civic decisions about urban change.

Previous GSD alumni to receive the MacArthur Fellowship include artist Rick Lowe (LF ’02) in 2014 and architect Jeanne Gang (MArch '93) in 2011.

Read more about Orff, Rich, and the other 2017 awardees on the MacArthur Foundation’s website.