Harvard Design School Awards 2024 Wheelwright Prize to Postcolonial Designer

July 5, 2024



Elle Yap

The Wheelwright Prize announced its 2024 recipient on Thursday, June 27. The Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) award was given to researcher Thandi Loewenson. Her submitted paper sought to look at “social and spatial relations in contemporary Africa.”  

The prize, named after Arthur W. Wheelwright, aims to award architects with grants to support “an expansive, intensive design research project.” Currently, the prize awards a $100,000 grant to support the proposed project, as well as invitations to lecture at Harvard GSD and to “publish research in a Harvard GSD publication.”

Loewenson’s research, Black Papers: Beyond the Politics of Land, Towards African Policies of Earth & Air, centers around the idea of expanding our definition of land “in the context of African liberation movements.” The research paper combines different overlapping terrains to show the effect of colonial capitalist systems in Africa. 

An old map of Africa. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
An old map of Africa. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“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,” Loewenson said. 

Meriem Chabani, Nathan Friedman, and Ryan Roark were the other three finalists for the Wheelwright Prize.

Who is Thandi Loewenson?

Loewenson, an architectural designer and researcher, graduated from The Bartlett at University College London with a PhD in Architectural Design. Her work centers on questioning the status quo, working with different stakeholders on her “provocative” work. 

A diamond mine in South Africa. Photo by Robert Harris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A diamond mine in South Africa. Photo by Robert Harris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

She uses “fiction as a design tool and tactic,” with her works focusing on decolonization. Her most recent project at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) questions the imperial history of the institution. BLACKLIGHT depicts a colonial-era African mine called Broken Hill. The work was laid over the Jarvis Mural, which shows the RIBA council surrounded by indigenous peoples of the empire. 

“It’s one of the most racist things I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said about the original mural. 

‘Black Papers’ and Post-Colonial Works

The Black Papers research mines similar territory as her recent mural and works. She’ll be using aerial techniques to survey the land. The research will highlight the continent’s mining of “technology metals” , representing the “digital dispossession” between the West and its former colonies. Her research will last two years, focusing on seven countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. 

Two workers in a South African mine. Photo by FIFTY. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Two workers in a South African mine. Photo by FIFTY. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Wheelwright Prize jury that chose Thandi Loewenson praised her research and work as visionary and “expanding what constitutes [as] architectural research.” Harvard GSD Dean Sarah M. Whiting called her work “nothing short of a full reconceptualization of land and sky as material realities, sources of value, and sites of political struggle.” Colleagues offered similar praises to her work. 

“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,” jury member Jennifer Newsom said. 

An image of Broken Hill Mine in Australia. Photo from The History Trust of South Australian, South Australian Government. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
An image of Broken Hill Mine in Australia. Photo from The History Trust of South Australian, South Australian Government. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“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.”

Related reading: Francis Kéré: The First African To Win The Pritzker Prize

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