Thandi Loewenson Awarded 2024 Wheelwright Prize

A film still from a video showing black-and-white drawings on transparent film displayed on a lightbox. Two black silhouettes of two hands appear over the drawings.

Thandi Loewenson, still from Whisper Network Intelsat 502, 2022.

Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) is pleased to name Thandi Loewenson the winner of the 2024 Wheelwright Prize. The $100,000 grant supports investigative approaches to contemporary architecture, with an emphasis on globally minded research.

Loewenson’s project, Black Papers: Beyond the Politics of Land, Towards African Policies of Earth & Air, engages a dynamic terrain of social and spatial relations in contemporary Africa. Whereas the importance of land in the context of African liberation movements and subsequent postcolonial governments has been analyzed mainly in terms of private property, dispossession and redistribution, and agriculture and mining, Loewenson pushes our understanding in radically new directions with the introduction of an analytic framework she calls “the entanglement of Earth and Air.” Through this framework, Loewenson expands these interpretations of land to include many overlapping terrains above and below ground, spanning rare metals buried far below the Earth’s crust and reaching up to the digital cloud and Earth’s ionosphere, and ranging in scale from a solitary breath of air to entire weather systems.

Ultimately, Loewenson’s project will examine how colonial capitalist systems of racialization, dispossession, and exploitation are co-constituted and endure across multiple, entangled Earthly and airborne terrains. The Wheelwright Prize will support her study, which will include aerial techniques for surveying and prospecting, as well as the mining of “technology metal,” minerals employed in networked devices that also underwrite a global system of digital dispossession. Among the forms her findings will take are the Black Papers, studies that aim to shape both policy discourse and public perception. Incorporating drawings, moving image, and performances as well as critical creative writing, the Black Papers are designed to reach broad audiences through popular media including video, radio, and social platforms like WhatsApp.

A portrait of Thandi Loewenson who stands in front of a brick wall.
Thandi Loewenson. Photo: Niall Finn.

“The question of land, and its indelible link to African liberation and being, echoes across the continent as a central theme of liberation movements and the postcolonial governments that followed. Instead of solely engaging land as a site of struggle, this work situates land within a network of interconnected spaces, from layers deep within the Earth to its outermost atmospheric reaches,” says Loewenson. “This research presents a radical shift: developing a new epistemic framework and a series of open-access, creatively reimagined policy proposals—the Black Papers—in which earth and air are not distinct, but rather concomitant terrains through which racialization and exploitation are forged on the continent, and through which they will be fought. The Wheelwright Prize is uniquely placed to support such ambitious inquiry, enabling me to bring together seemingly disparate yet closely bound parts of our planet, and agitate for a more just and flourishing world.”

The Wheelwright Prize will fund two years of Loewenson’s research and travel. She plans to focus her work in seven African nations: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

“Expanding what constitutes architectural research, Thandi defines a sectional slice of inquiry that spans from the subterranean to the celestial. Her project is nothing short of a full reconceptualization of land and sky as material realities, sources of value, and sites of political struggle,” says Sarah M. Whiting, Dean and Josep Lluís Sert Professor of Architecture at the GSD. “Such vision exemplifies the kind of ambition the Wheelwright Prize is meant to support. Along with the rest of the jury, I could not be more thrilled that she is this year’s winner.”

In addition to Whiting, jurors for the 2024 prize include: Chris Cornelius, professor and chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and PlanningK. Michael Hays, Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory and co-director of the Master in Design Studies program at the GSD; Jennifer Newsom, co-founder of Dream the Combine and assistant professor at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning; John Peterson, curator of the Loeb Fellowship at the GSD; and Noura Al Sayeh, head of Architectural Affairs for the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities.

A black-and-white photograph showing an abstract composition resembling a tree's root system etched into metal panels that are arranged in a grid.
Thandi Loewenson, detail from The Uhuru Catalogues, 2023. Photo: Alice Clancy.

“Loewenson’s research examines our planetary section, reaching from the probative violence of mining and extractive terrains to the fog of particles in the air we breathe and the digital fragments ricocheting in our outer atmosphere. Building from a necessary set of scholarly research about the entanglements of earth, air, bodies, and dispossession (on multiple timescales), her work extends these arguments into a material practice rich with layers—the matter that matters to our time,” says Newsom. “Loewenson promises to think with the materiality of place, collapsing the spaces of poetics and the landscapes of policy with the literal terrain of the context these projections shape. Her proposal was clear-headed about its purpose, research methods, and outputs, yet remained nimbly open to the propulsive capacity for her work to fractal outward in ‘activist academic practice’—to new audiences, interlocutors, policymakers, students, and neighbors. Loewenson constructs a relational field of inquiry essential for our discipline.”

The Wheelwright Prize supports innovative design research, crossing both cultural and architectural boundaries. Winning research proposal topics in recent years have included the environmental and social impacts of sand mining; the potential of seaweed, shellfish, and the intertidal zone to advance architectural knowledge; and new paradigms for digital infrastructure.

Loewenson was among four distinguished finalists selected from a highly competitive and international pool of applicants. The 2024 Wheelwright Prize jury commends finalists Meriem ChabaniNathan Friedman, and Ryan Roark for their promising research proposals and presentations.

Born in Harare, Loewenson is an architectural designer/researcher who mobilizes design, fiction, and performance to stoke embers of emancipatory political thought and fires of collective action, and to feel for the contours of other, possible worlds. Using fiction as a design tool and tactic, and operating in the overlapping realms of the weird, the tender, the earthly, and the airborne, Loewenson engages in projects which provoke questioning of the status-quo, whilst working with communities, policy makers, unions, artists, and architects to act on those provocations. A senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, she holds a PhD in Architectural Design from The Bartlett, UCL. Loewenson is a co-founder of the architectural collective BREAK//LINE—an “act of creative solidarity” that “resists definition with intent”—formed at The Bartlett in 2018 to oppose the trespass of capital, the indifference towards inequality, and the myriad frontiers of oppression present in architectural education and practice today. She is also a contributor to EQUINET, the Regional Network on Equity in Health in East and Southern Africa, a co-founder of the Fiction, Feeling, Frame research collective at the Royal College of Art, and a co-curator, with Huda Tayob and Suzi Hall, of the open-access curriculum project Race, Space & Architecture.