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Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, is pleased to announce that Gia Wolff, an architect based in Brooklyn, New York, is the winner of the inaugural Wheelwright Prize, a $100,000 traveling fellowship dedicated to fostering new forms of architectural research informed by cross-cultural engagement.

The Wheelwright Prize jury—Mostafavi, Yung Ho Chang, Farès el-Dahdah, K. Michael Hays, Farshid Moussavi, Zoe Ryan, and Jorge Silvetti—selected Gia Wolff from among 231 applicants from 45 countries, including Afghanistan, Brazil, Burkina Faso, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, and Spain. Applicants were asked to submit portfolios along with a research proposal and travel itinerary, outlining an extended field investigation and its anticipated benefits for the field of architecture. “The positive response to the Wheelwright Prize has been extraordinary,” said Mostafavi. “It is inspiring to see so many talented architects with clear agendas and visions.” 

The jury commended Wolff as an original talent who has developed an innovative, multifaceted architectural practice. The 35-year-old architect has worked for Acconci Studio, LOT-EK, Adjaye Associates, and Architecture Research Office (ARO), where she has been involved in projects that range from libraries to residences, exhibition designs to urban installations. She is presently an assistant professor adjunct at the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union and a visiting assistant professor at Pratt Institute. She leads her own practice, which focuses on “performance and its use of space and objects to convey narrative, form, and emotion,” in her words. Recently, she has been collaborating with the Phantom Limb Company on set designs for productions including The Devil You Know (presented at La Mama Experimental Theater, New York, 2010), The Composer Is Dead (Berkeley Repertory Theater, Berkeley, 2010), and 69° South (BAM Next Wave Festival, Brooklyn, 2011). Wolff received a Master of Architecture from Harvard GSD in 2008 and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design in 2001.

Wolff is the first winner of the new Wheelwright Prize, an update of the Arthur Wheelwright Traveling Fellowship, which was established in 1935 and previously available only to GSD alumni. The original prize was conceived at a time when few architects traveled abroad, and for many early recipients—including Paul Rudolph, Eliot Noyes, William Wurster, and I. M. Pei—the fellowship financed travels that followed the tradition of the Grand European Tour. Under Dean Mostafavi, the GSD opened the prize to architects practicing anywhere in the world, recognizing the increasingly fluid flow of ideas and talent across the globe today, and the necessity of diverse forms of architectural research to developing new modes of practice. “The GSD has always emphasized the relationship between locations, themes, and issues,” says Mostafavi. “We are pleased to be able to make this opportunity available to young architects, who rarely have the freedom or resources to construct a research project that might push them to the next level of their development.”

Wolff’s winning proposal, Floating City: The Community-Based Architecture of Parade Floats, proposes the study of the tradition of parade floats—elaborate temporary and mobile constructions that are realized annually in carnival festivals in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Goa (India), Nice (France), Santa Cruze de Tenerife (Spain), and Viarreggio (Italy). As Wolff describes in her essay, “The float transforms the city. Its scale makes exterior streets into interior rooms of street theater…. This research ties into contemporary interests in performance and architectural notions of mobility, temporality, spectacle, urban space, and community-based design.”

The jury was enthusiastic about the strong continuity between Wolff’s existing body of work and her proposed area of study. The following comments emerged during the final premiation: “Wolff embodies a new way to think about practice”; “Though her work deals with impermanence, it engages with contemporary architectural concerns with flexibility, modularity, mobility, art”; “With her interest in the community-based creative production of carnival floats, Wolff’s proposal has a social dimension that resonates with the current preoccupation with local fabrication and maker economies”; and “Her research promises to touch on ideas that will help the analysis of the city.”

The $100,000 grant will fund Wolff’s research over the next two years.

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