Introducing the Architectural League’s 2021 Emerging Voices winners

The Grateful Eight

Introducing the Architectural League’s 2021 Emerging Voices winners

Oak Plaza, a 2007 public space project in the Miami Design District by 2021 Emerging Voices winner CÚRE & PENABAD. (Steven Brooke)

The Architectural League of New York has announced the winners of the 2021 edition of its Emerging Voices awards.

Each year, the invited competition showcases and celebrates eight young (and young-ish) firms and individuals based in North America possessing “distinct design voices and the potential to influence the disciplines of architecture, landscape design, and urbanism,” per the Architectural League. The award has been presented annually to design practitioners and educators who have made exemplary contributions to the built environment while addressing larger social themes of the day since 1982. Past winners include Steven Holl (1982), Deborah Berke (1993), Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi (1997), Jeanne Gang (2006), Kate Orff (2012), and Bryan C. Lee Jr. and Sue Mobley (2019).

Spanning Miami to Mexico City, Ann Arbor to Austin, and beyond, this year’s Emerging Voices winners were selected as part of a two-stage review process from a pool of 50 entrants by an eight-person jury composed, as is tradition, of several previous winners. This year’s jury included: Daniel Barber, Philadelphia; Milton S.F. Curry, Los Angeles; Mimi Hoang, New York; Paul Lewis, New York; Rozana Montiel, Mexico City; Ronald Rael, Berkeley, California; Lola Sheppard, Toronto, and Rosalyne Shieh, New York.

“Cognizant of the limitations of seductive images that are often foregrounded in portfolios, the jury carefully weighed all elements of the submissions, identifying eight individuals and firms engaged in a robust architecture imbued with inventive approaches to social, racial, and economic equity, material invention, and ecological benefits,” said Paul Lewis, jury member and president of the Architectural League, in a statement.

In the following days, AN will publish profiles of all eight newly-minted Emerging Voices. The upcoming February/March 2021 print edition of The Architect’s Newspaper will also include a feature spotlighting the singular work of each winner. On March 11, the Architectural League will kick off a virtual lecture series featuring the 2021 awardees. Held weekly each Thursday evening, the free and open-to-the-public series will conclude on April 1.

Until then, AN is pleased to present the 2021 Emerging Voices winners complete with snippets from each upcoming profile:

Pascale Sablan
Beyond the Built Environment (New York City)

a design exhibition in a long gallery space from 2021 emerging voices winner pascale sablan
Beyond the Built Environment’s SAY IT LOUD, Center for Architecture, AIANY, New York, 2017. (Cameron Blaylock)

Identity and advocacy are common threads through the career of architect and advocate Pascale Sablan, which encompasses professional, archival, and mentoring work.

Elected to serve as the next president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) in the fall of 2020 after holding other leadership roles within the organization, Sablan is also the founder of Beyond the Built Environment, an advocacy platform that has sprung several exhibition series and, more recently, a media drive that aims to get architecture and design publications to commit to increasing their coverage of Black practitioners. Earlier this year, she started work at Adjaye Associates’ New York office, where she will be able to jointly pursue practice and advocacy. “Having a position on your timesheet that says advocacy is incredible. It means I’m able to hold my identity as an architect, as a mother, and as an advocate,” said Sablan.

Adib Cúre, Carie Penabad

black and white photo of a rural school in guatemala
Escuelita Buganvilia in Escuintla, Guatemala, by CÚRE & PENABAD (Waseem Syed)

“For us, the production of architecture is always inextricably linked to the design of cities, no matter how small or large,” explained Carie Penabad, cofounding principal of CÚRE & PENABAD, the architecture and urban design studio she founded in 2001 with her partner and fellow educator Adib Cúre. “One underlying theme of our work is a conscientious pursuit of an architecture of place. We immerse ourselves in the culture and in the urbanism of a place and then allow that to inform the architecture.”

Recent projects like Escuelita Buganvilia, a climatically responsive kit-of-parts rural school building in Escuintla, Guatemala, have seen the duo expand out of Miami, the city where their practice has made a distinctive mark through a number of diverse projects. The result of thorough research and mobilization, Escuelita Buganvilia found CÚRE & PENABAD collaborating with nonprofit partners to “produce buildings, even if they’re modest in scale, that could enhance the collective environment that [the community] has a hard time building on its own,” said Penabad.

Chelina Odbert
Kounkuey Design Initiative (Los Angeles and Coachella, California / Nairobi / Stockholm)

two men installing windows
KDI-KEFRI Carpentry Academy, Kibera, Kenya, 2016-ongoing. (Courtesy Kounkuey Design Initiative)

Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) is a multifaceted practice with work that transcends conventional architectural categories. Its varied staff includes “landscape architects, architects, planners, engineers, and a research and community organizing team,” said Chelina Odbert, KDI executive director and cofounder. “Because of that interdisciplinary makeup, we’re able to cross the spectrum from design to policy and even advocacy and activism.”

KDI is a global firm but it’s deeply embedded in local contexts, often working on multiple projects in the same locale. For instance, over the past 15 years, KDI has collaborated with communities in Kibera, an impoverished part of Nairobi, on several public spaces aimed at addressing the area’s ecological and social needs. Those experiences informed KDI’s work in the Coachella Valley, where the practice has used participatory design processes to create parks, a multimodal transportation plan, and more.

Lori A. Brown (Syracuse, New York)

rendering of a fence with sprinklers
Design consultation and proposal for Alabama’s Women’s Wellness Center, Huntsville, Alabama. (Courtesy Lori A. Brown)

The intersection of policy and architecture frequently informs architect and educator Lori A. Brown’s projects, including one of her latest, which focuses on migrant shelters and birthing centers at the U.S.-Mexico border. These grassroots spaces, she argues, “are charged with radical potential and possibility” as they resist geopolitical borders to offer support for families in transition.

What Brown recognizes is that architecture is not merely building to a brief—it’s a system that’s part of the political fabric. For that reason, it must also be inclusive, which is why she co-founded ArchiteXX, a nonprofit dedicated to gender equity in architecture, and has embarked on her most ambitious initiative to date: The Bloomsbury Global Encyclopedia of Women in Architecture, 1960–2015, which she is editing with Karen Burns.

Ryan Bollom, DK Osseo-Asare
Low Design Office (Austin, Texas / Tema, Ghana)

a modern wood home with people sitting outside at a firepit
The Guadalupe River House in New Braunfels, Texas, by Low Design Office. (Casey Dunn)

Since studying together at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Ryan Bollom and DK Osseo-Asare, cofounders of Low Design Office (LOWDO), have forged an unconventional practice guided by the question “What does it mean to make good design accessible to everyday people?”

Together, Bollom and Osseo-Asare have completed a handful of houses in Texas carefully attuned to local climates. The firm’s work in Nigeria and Ghana uses the same sensitivity to context but to different ends. A collaboration with the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform collective led to a pavilion where people working in Accra, Ghana’s Agbogbloshie scrapyard can access tools and equipment for small-scale projects. The structure’s open-source design is meant to be, and has been, adapted to new contexts by other parties. Other projects include bamboo robot prototypes, a study of West African kiosk culture, and a country home in upstate New York.

Craig Borum, Jen Maigret
PLY+ (Ann Arbor, Michigan)

a modern chapel building at a hospital
Saint Mary Chapel in Livonia, Michigan, by PLY+ (Adam Smith)

Commissioned projects and independent research are deeply entwined at PLY+, an Ann Arbor, Michigan–based collaborative architecture practice established by Craig Borum. “We’re trying to work outside of commissions to think about ways of generating new knowledge or new approaches to materials, organization, the way we work, and then letting the practice inform some of those questions, but then also letting the research feed back into the way we think about projects,” explained Borum.

This interplay between research and practice is best evidenced in projects like the interfaith chapel at Saint Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, Michigan. Completed in 2018, the chapel was born out of Borum and principal Jen Maigret’s grant-funded research into dichroic glass at the University of Michigan, where both are professors at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “It was a natural fit to think about the way we might play with light and with the iconic role that stained glass has played in religious architecture,” Borum said of the project. “For us, it was a way to reinvent that and bring it forward.”

Sara Zewde
Studio Zewde (New York City)

rendering of a play space beneath a willow trees
Proposal for a memorial to Barbara Jordan in Houston by Studio Zewde. (Courtesy Studio Zewde)

It’s customary within the architecture and planning fields to match site and program to projected patterns of use. But landscape architect Sara Zewde, principal of the Harlem, New York-based Studio Zewde, which specializes in designing public parks and art, is suspicious of this routine approach. “I think it’s important to question the assumptions underlying terms like ‘site’ and ‘typology,’” Zewde said. “The method we follow in the studio is essentially not to take anything for granted.”

With several major projects on the docket—including a five-acre park in Pittsburgh’s historically Black Homewood neighborhood—Zewde persists in combating the shibboleths of her field. Landscape has adopted the rubric of resilience as an overarching frame, but its manifestation in individual projects can often feel like an add-on or PR spin. Zewde sees things differently: “In all the places we work we are dealing with time. There’s a resilience of places and people that outlasts us and has preceded us. Sometimes designing to amplify the resilience that’s already within people is what an environment can do.”

José Pablo Ambrosi, Loreta Castro-Reguera
Taller Capital (Mexico City)

a terraced park nestled into a hillside
Parque Bicentenario in Ecatepec, State of Mexico by Taller Capital (Rafael Gamo)

Mexico City–based Taller Capital (TC), led by architects José Pablo Ambrosi and Loreta Castro Reguera, is inconspicuously rehabilitating the Mexican urban fabric with public space projects in marginalized areas. Their research-based design practice was prompted by Castro’s longtime exploration of integral water systems. “Rather than focusing on gigantic projects that propose unreachable results, such as turning an airport into a lake,” Ambrosi said, “Loreta developed a philosophy of ‘hydro-urban acupuncture,’ working from the bottom up with solutions that can transform water management and culture.”

While public space projects, including three parks realized as part of a program for urban improvement in segregated cities, have become the norm for TC, housing is the firm’s backbone. There, the firm’s work remains austere. “We don’t make pretty architecture,” Ambrosi clarified. “We set our own restrictions, reduce the material palette down to the minimum, and look at geometry, spatial composition, vegetation.”