Harvard GSD Shortlists Four Architects for 2023 Wheelwright Prize

2023 Wheelwright Prize Shortlist

Harvard GSD’s 2023 Wheelwright Prize finalists are (left to right) Jingru (Cyan) Cheng, Maya Bird-Murphy, Isabel Abascal, and DK Osseo-Asare.

Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) is pleased to announce four shortlisted architects for the 2023 Wheelwright Prize. The Wheelwright Prize is an international competition for early-career architects. Winners receive a $100,000 (USD) fellowship to foster intensive, innovative architectural research that is informed by cross-cultural engagement and can make a significant impact on architectural discourse. Winning research proposal topics in recent years have included the potential of seaweed, shellfish, and the intertidal zone to advance architectural knowledge and material futures; how spaces have been transformed through the material contributions of the African Diaspora; and new architecture paradigms for storing data that can reimagine digital infrastructure.

The 2023 Wheelwright Prize drew a wide pool of international applicants. A first-phase jury deliberated in April; a winner will be announced in June.

Jurors for the 2023 prize include: Noura Al Sayeh, Head of Architectural Affairs for the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities; Mira Henry, design faculty at Southern California Institute for Architecture; Mark Lee, Chair of the Department of Architecture and Professor of Practice at Harvard GSD; Jacob Riedel, Assistant Professor in Practice of Architecture at Harvard GSD; Enrique Walker, Design Critic in Architecture at Harvard GSD; and Sarah M. Whiting, Dean and Josep Lluís Sert Professor of Architecture at Harvard GSD.

The four finalists for the 2023 Wheelwright Prize, and their proposals, are:

Isabel Abascal: “Mother Architecture: Shaping Birth”

Isabel Abascal is a Mexico City–based architect and writer. In 2015, she founded the architecture studio LANZA Atelier, along with Alessandro Arienzo. From 2015 to 2017, Abascal was the Executive Director of LIGA, Espacio para Arquitectura, a platform dedicated to the dissemination and discussion of Latin American architecture. There, she curated myriad exhibitions, and co-edited the book Exposed Architecture, published by Park Books. She has also contributed to publications such as DOMUS, Avery Review,Arquine, Wallpaper*, and the UNAM Journal, among others. Abascal studied architecture at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, the Technische Universität in Berlin, and at the Vastu Shilpa Foundation in Ahmedabad, under Balkrishna Doshi.

The World Health Organization estimates that almost 800 women died from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every day in 2020. Almost 95% of these deaths occurred in low and lower middle-income countries, and most could have been prevented. The high number of maternal deaths in some areas of the world reflects inequalities in access to quality health services and highlights the gap between rich and poor. With “Mother Architecture: Shaping Birth,” Abascal examines how rethinking architecture and spatial design can impact maternal mortality through case studies of matriarchal societies, home waterbirths, Pritzker-Prize maternity centers, and floating hospitals.

The Wheelwright Prize would expand research through case studies from the Americas and Europe to Western Africa and Southeast Asia, including Bolivia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Bangladesh, Senegal, and the United Kingdom.  The research will inform the design of a  space model for birth that could be implemented in both rural and urban areas by international health organizations and NGOs. The fieldwork, data collection, and prototype development, among additional research, will be disseminated amongst health practitioners and planning authorities, specifically for the places where the research was conducted.

Maya Bird-Murphy: “Examining Architectural Practice Through Alternative Methodology and Pedagogy”

Maya Bird-Murphy is a designer, educator, and the founder of Mobile Makers, an award-winning non-profit organization bringing design and skill-building workshops to underrepresented communities. She was selected by Theaster Gates and the Prada Group as an Experimental Design Lab awardee, featured as one of 50 people who shape Chicago in Newcity Magazine, and received the 2022 Pierre Keller Prize at the Hublot Design Prize ceremony in London. In 2018, she was named as an AIGA Design + Diversity Conference National Fellow.  The same year, she was featured in The American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Emerging Professionals Exhibition 2018 for Mobile Makers. Bird-Murphy attended Ball State University and received an M.Arch from Boston Architectural College.

Through her research and practice, Maya Bird-Murphy, investigates the connection between architecture and identity. She cites that the mounting challenges the architecture field faces, including the climate crisis, social inequality, and land equity, can no longer be ignored. With “Examining Architectural Practice Through Alternative Methodology and Pedagogy,” Bird-Murphy aims to investigate the friction that exists between the traditional and alternative design practices, to document the nuances of individual practices, and ultimately, to gather and share knowledge through architectural storytelling. The research proposal takes a critical look at how to accelerate systems change in the architecture field, and what United States–based firms can learn from alternative practices around the world, specifically by exploring innovative methods to collect, store, and share open-source knowledge and stories that foster authentic connection and dialogue in the field.

With the Wheelwright Prize, Maya-Murphy plans travel to eight international cities to research and gather stories and data, visit firms and project sites, and conduct interviews with alternative practitioners, including Material Cultures in London, Fernanda Canales Arquitectura in Mexico City, Atelier Masomi in Niamey, and Estudio Guto Requena in Sao Paolo. The research will result in a published anthology that features stories, interviews, and original works of art and design that amplify alternative practice models and methodologies. A collection of portraits will be housed on a project website for individuals who want to establish an alternative practice of their own, designers looking to work for a firm doing more meaningful work, or clients looking for mission-driven firms to work with. She will also schedule in-person curated experiences in select cities, including dinner salons, roundtables, panel discussions, and other related events.

Jingru (Cyan) Cheng: “Tracing Sand: Phantom Territories, Bodies Adrift”

Jingru (Cyan) Cheng works across architecture, anthropology, and filmmaking. Her practice follows drifting bodies—from rural migrant workers to forms of water—to draw out latent relations across scales, confronting intensified social injustice and ecological crisis. Cheng received commendations from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) President’s Awards for Research in 2018 and 2020. She is also a 2022 Graham Foundation Grantee. Her work has been exhibited internationally, as part of Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics at ZKM Karlsruhe, Germany (2020-22), Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (2019), Venice Architecture Biennale (2018), among others, and included in the Architectural Association’s permanent collection. Cheng holds a PhD by Design and M.Phil in Architecture and Urban Design (Projective Cities) from the Architectural Association (AA), and was the co-director of AA Wuhan Visiting School (2015–17). She co-led the MA architectural design studio Politics of the Atmosphere (2019–22) and currently teaches an interdisciplinary module across all schools at the Royal College of Art in London.

From airports to beaches and river basins to hydroelectric dams, sand has an unnoticed yet significant impact on the built environment and human communities. Sand is a key component of concrete, glass, asphalt road, and artificial land, supporting modern cities and modern life. The act of dredging from underwater systems and channels, sand mining erodes riverbanks and disrupts ecosystems, resulting in a long chain of consequences and dependencies. Colossal amounts of sand are mined and moved to shape one habitat while destroying another. With “Tracing Sand: Phantom Territories, Bodies Adrift,” Cheng  dissects iconic sand sites that give form to spatio-cultural territories that have been fueled by colonial globalization and high consumption. Her proposal aims to establish a reflexive framework for architecture towards a paradigm shift in the value system: what does it mean to build today amid ecological crisis and social injustice?

The Wheelwright Prize will support travel to airports in Singapore, beaches in Florida, rivers in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, and rural immigrant communities in China. Cheng will conduct interviews with key stakeholders and research design decisions, procurement routes, contractual relations, financing, regulations, and policies. Combining her research across architecture, anthropology, and filmmaking, Cheng plans to develop educational and public programs and a multi-media archive that will be open access and made available for the affected communities, activist groups, and associated researchers.

DK Osseo-Asare: “Bucky in Africa: Remembering the Chemistry of Architecture”

DK Osseo-Asare is a Ghanaian American designer who makes buildings, landscapes, communities, objects, and digital tools. He is a co-founding principal of the transatlantic architecture and integrated design studio Low Design Office (LowDo), based in Austin, United States, and Tema, Ghana. He holds an appointment in Humanitarian Materials at the Pennsylvania State University, where he directs the Humanitarian Materials Lab, a transdisciplinary research lab architecting materials for human welfare. He is a TED Global Fellow; member, Ghana Institution of Engineering (GhIE); and received A.B. in Engineering Design and M.Arch degrees from Harvard University, with a focus on kinetic architecture and network power.

With “Bucky in Africa: Remembering the Chemistry of Architecture,” Osseo-Asare seeks to decolonize the practice of architecture using a mixed methods approach of action research to investigate the African roots of “design science” from an architectural perspective. The proposal’s focus starts with the decade-long itinerary of the American design scientist R. Buckminster Fuller’s transdisciplinary teaching and research in Africa. By studying the links between indigenous African technologies of design and established conventions of architectural production, Osseo-Asares incorporates linguistics, archival research, fieldwork, and community-based making with academic and community partners across Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The collected research constitutes a sequence of temporary outputs that will also contribute to the development of the next generation of African architects and designers, considered in the context of the global African diaspora.

Osseo-Asare’s Wheelwright proposal research stems from his finalist proposal for the 2019 MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program, “Bambot: Fufuzela,” which reconceived architecture as living structure with independent agency, understood from an African perspective, in which all material is alive and “spiritually active.” The Wheelwright Prize will support Osseo-Asare’s fieldwork throughout North Africa and Middle East, East Africa, West, Central and Southern Africa, and result in a publication, public lectures, and exhibition content as well as a series of workshops in various African communities.