Harvard University has announced UK-based transdisciplinary design researcher and academic Jingru (Cyan) Cheng as the winner of the 2023 Wheelwright Prize for a materials-based proposal titled Tracing Sand: Phantom Territories, Bodies Adrift that focuses on sand and its ecological impacts in multiple settings.
Cheng, who is currently an instructor at the Royal College of Art in London, has delved into similar research in the past and says she will travel to locations in Singapore, Miami, Vietnam, and rural China as part of the two-year, $100,000 research prize, which follows 2022 Graham Foundation Grant and two RIBA President’s Awards for Research from 2018 and 2020.
Cheng shared, "The proposal of Tracing Sand is the convergence of my different lines of work so far, the teachings that made me an architect, and the life experiences that made me. I see architectural materiali- ty as an active, tangible force driving and shaping long chains of consequences and dependencies. It draws surprising connections between sites, communities, and ecologies. Winning the Wheelwright Prize affirms that the questions I’m after are part of the larger quest of architecture today, at a time of intensified social injustice and ecological crisis."
Sand is a fundamental element underpinning the built environment in every part of the developed world and other areas that are disproportionately affected by its value in the global supply chain. Cheng’s research will therefore aim to establish a “reflexive framework for architecture by questioning what it means to build today amid ecological crisis and social injustice,” at the end culminating in a series of educational and public programming that is supported by an open-access public archive.
"As a travel-based design research award, the Wheelwright cannot be more fitting for this rather audacious proposition: to follow sand is to trace architectural materiality through supply chains and ecosystems," she added. "It is to learn through embodied experiences the entangled flows of peo- ple, life forms, matter, and the built environment across scales. Understanding how interconnected and interdependent we all are is fundamental today. I believe architecture provides a material wayfinding through this almost incomprehensible entanglement—and offers possibilities to transform it.”
GSD Dean Sarah M. Whiting said in a statement, “In his book The World in a Grain, American-Canadian journalist Vince Beiser underscores why sand affects each and every one of us: ‘It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live.’ Cyan Cheng’s Wheelwright proposal takes Beiser’s claim one step further: sand underpins our built environment but also our global economy. Tracing together material evidence, technological expertise, labor practices, and corporate reach, Cheng’s study has [a] breadth that makes it relevant to every community across the globe, and specificity that promises to reveal hitherto unknown repercussions of this fragile resource.”
Cheng follows last year’s winner Marina Otero and was selected over a group of four finalists that included Isabel Abascal, Maya Bird-Murphy, and DK Osseo-Asare. Jurist Noura Al Sayeh of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities promised that Cheng’s winning proposal will “[bridge] opposing sites and actors,” before adding finally that it “aims towards a comprehensive shift in the value system of architecture.” Learn more about this year's Wheelwright Prize finalists here.
She received her B.Arch from Huazhong University of Science and Technology and a Master's of Philosophy degree and PhD by Design from the Architectural Association (AA). She is the founding director of ACROSS Architecture and was the co-director of the AA Wuhan Visiting School program (2015–2017).
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