Founded in 1979 by Chicago-headquartered global architecture, engineering, and urban design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the SOM Foundation is continuing to make good on its mission to “advance the design profession’s ability to address the key topics of our time by bringing together and supporting groups and individuals, each with the highest possible design aspirations.” That mission, which has previously aided the likes of Santiago Calatrava (1988), Marion Weiss (1982), and Joshua Ramus (1995), has now yielded a new academic award program, the Robert L. Wesley Award. The award is named in honor of SOM’s first Black partner.
The Tennessee-born Wesley joined the prestigious firm in 1964 after a college-era stint under the employee of then-Nashville-based McKissack & McKissack, the oldest African American-owned architecture and engineering practice in the United States, and became a partner at SOM two decades later in 1984. He retired from the firm in 2001.
The new yearly award was established in support of BIPOC architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, and structural engineering undergraduate students, and will be bestowed as three scholarships each for $10,000. In addition to the funds, which aim to foster academic development, recipients will also be paired with an award juror who will act as a mentor for a year. The award is open to students enrolled in four- or five-programs in the aforementioned disciplines and can be currently in any year of their studies. The submission deadline is November 9.
“For four decades the SOM Foundation has supported students and design leaders, providing economic and institutional support,” said Iker Gil, executive director of the SOM Foundation, in a statement provided to AN. “At this critical moment, we want to reinforce our commitment to education by creating the new Robert L. Wesley Award that supports Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) undergraduate students. Starting in 2020, the SOM Foundation will be providing three $10,000 unrestricted awards on an annual basis. And we are thrilled to do it while honoring Robert L. Wesley, the first Black partner at SOM who, over the years, has continuously inspired young generations, especially those in underserved communities, with his passion for design and direct involvement in civic programs.”
As mentioned by Gil, a Basque-born architect, editor, and curator who began in the role of executive director of the foundation in June 2019 and will serve as the award jury chair, Wesley has been exceptionally active in Chicago-area civic organizations over the years including the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Chicago Area Council, and the Central Region of the Boy Scouts of America. He was also a founding board member of the Newhouse Architecture Foundation Inc. While with SOM, he was involved with a multitude of major civic projects such as Sioux City Art Center, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Jazz Museum of Chicago, and the Elmhurst College of Performing Arts in Illinois.
“The naming of this BIPOC academic award is truly an honor, which I must express my sincerest gratitude and appreciation to the SOM Foundation,” said Wesley, who will serve on the award jury among Gil and others, in a statement. “It is my belief that one of the greatest gifts a young person can receive from any authority, organization, or institution, is an education. And this award exemplifies exactly that. Education is one of those indelible rights that keeps our society strong, productive, and empathetic. When used properly, all of society benefits.”
In addition to the Robert L. Wesley Award, the SOM Foundation also recently announced the opening of the application period for the third iteration of the annual SOM Foundation Research Prize, which awards two $40,000 grants to faculty-led interdisciplinary teams that propose research projects examining a topic—one meant to spur “new ideas and meaningful research that addresses the critical issues of our time”—established by the foundation’s board. This year’s topic is “Examining Social Justice in Urban Contexts.” The proposal submission deadline for the Research Prize is November 16.
In total, the foundation currently offers five awards (the other three being the long-running UK Award, the China Fellowship, and the Structural Engineering Fellowship) and has awarded $2.5 million since grant programming, initially largely focused on travel meant to broaden the horizons of young architects, was established in 1981.