Gia Wolff, a Brooklyn-based architect, designer, and instructor, has won the 2013 Wheelwright Prize, a traveling fellowship reintroduced by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design this year.
Wolff, 35, won the $100,000 travel grant to support her proposal to study the design of parade floats around the world. Her proposal, "Floating City: The Community-Based Architecture of Parade Floats," was selected from more than 200 proposals from 45 countries around the world.
"The award is not the typical tour where you go and make watercolors and come back," Wolff says. "It's trying to get at certain questions in architecture and the synthesis of creation and how we make things in this day and age."
Harvard GSD announced the launch of the Wheelwright Prize last December as an extension of the Arthur W. Wheelwright Traveling Fellowship, which was established for GSD alumi in 1935. The former Wheelwright Traveling Fellowship enabled such architects as Paul Rudolph and I.M. Pei to study outside the U.S. at early points in their careers. The expanded Wheelwright Prize is available to young architects from across the world who have graduated from an accredited architecture institution within the last 15 years. Wolff, who happens to be a GSD alumnus, is the prize's inaugural winner.
The Wheelwright Prize will send Wolff to festivals in Rio de Janeiro; Goa, India; Nice France; Santa Cruze de Tenerife, Spain; and Viarreggio, Italy. In Rio, for example, she will visit the 12 community schools that compete to build and design the notorious Carneval floats, which reach multiple stories in size. "Each of the schools are made up of community members, so for me it's interesting to see how the schools work and compete," Wolff says. "That's one component of it. The scale of these projects in the city, how they talk about mobile architecture, is another."
Wolff received her master's degree from Harvard GSD, where she created "Stargazer"—a planetarium in which simulated starlight provides direction through a labyrinth—for her master's thesis project. Since receiving her degree in 2008, Wolff has worked for a number of prestigious architecture firms, including Acconci Studio, Lot-ek, Adjaye Associates, and Architecture Research Office.
Her interest in mobile and performance-oriented architecture is evident across her career. Wolff has worked as an architectural designer alongside set designer Jessica Grindstaff for productions for New York's Phantom Limb Company. In 2011, she designed and fabricated "Portaali" (Finnish for "portal"), a 25-foot-diameter installation exhibited in Sunset Park in Brooklyn.
Presently, she is an adjunct instructor at the Cooper Union, where she teaches a first-year drawing class with Archigram's Michael Webb, and at the Pratt Institute, where she teaches a first-year core studio as well as an advanced studio. She says that she will likely take a leave of absence to study Carneval preparations during the spring semesters of the next two years.
A seven-member jury of award-winning architects and designer selected Wolff for the prize. The jury's members include Mohsen Mostafavi, Yung Ho Chang, Farès el-Dahdah, K. Michael Hays, Farshid Moussavi, Zoë Ryan, and Jorge Silvetti.
The Wheelwright Prize "speaks to a new way of working, of practicing architecture, that is collaborative and global," Wolff says. "I'm personally interested in mobile architecture, and at the same time, my practice is mobile. This [award] opens a lot of avenues for experimentation."