3 Designers Win $500K MacArthur Genius Grants

Entertainment By Elena Boaghi |

Today, the MacArthur Foundation announced its 2017 fellows. Each of the 24 creative thinkers at the top of their respective fields–which include performing arts, fine arts, math, science, anthropology, history, and more–have been awarded a $500,000 grant to continue their work. This year’s design-oriented inductees include landscape architect Kate Orff, artist and geographer Trevor Paglen, and urban planner Damon Rich.

“From transforming conditions for low-wage workers to identifying internet security vulnerabilities, from celebrating the African American string band tradition to designing resilient urban habitats, these new MacArthur Fellows bring their exceptional creativity to diverse people, places, and social challenges,” Cecilia Conrad, Managing Director, MacArthur Fellows Program, said in a news release. “Their work gives us reason for optimism and inspires us all.”

Past design industry recipients of the Genius grant include architect Jeanne Gang, typographer Matthew Carter, and architect Elizabeth Diller. While Orff, Paglen, and Rich work in in different capacities, they share a focus on improving the public realm. Here’s how.

Kate Orff [Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation]

Kate Orff, Designer of Adaptive and Resilient Urban Habitats

“Rather than treat landscape as a passive backdrop, I’m trying to design frameworks of engagement that connect people and ecosystems in an immediate and direct way,” Kate Orff says in a MacArthur Foundation video.

In 2007 Orff, who is 45, founded SCAPE, the New York–based landscape architecture studio behind projects that address climate change, loss of biodiversity, resiliency, and culture. She’s also the director of Columbia University’s graduate-level urban design program and was a member of Fast Company‘s 2014 Most Creative People In Business list.

[Image: SCAPE]

Orff’s projects include parks, infrastructure, gardens, green roofs and more. Overall, her approach is to create social spaces that also perform “ecological services,” like her proposal for New York City’s Rebuild by Design competition, a series of breakwaters that protect Staten Island’s coastal neighborhoods from sea level rise while also offering new habitat for marine wildlife and new opportunities for recreation. She also imagined a new “living reef” of pollution-cleansing oysters for New York Harbor as part of MoMA’s 2009 Rising Currents exhibition.

While future-focused conceptual work occupies a lot of Orff’s practice, she also works on more immediate projects. In East Harlem, SCAPE designed a new public park that replaced cracked asphalt with a play surface, plantings that help retain stormwater, and new jungle gym–all while preserving mature trees on the site. In Lexington, Kentucky, Orff is restoring a creek and designing a park around it. “We are science driven, research driven and activists in our approach,” she said.

Damon Rich [Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation]

Damon Rich, Planner of Democratic and Accountable Cities

After growing up in a St. Louis, Missouri, suburb, Damon Rich has always been keenly aware of the inequities that exist in urban design. His work as a professional designer has focused on developing cities that better service the entirety of their populations. In 1997, he founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy, a non-profit that encourages and facilitates residents participating in urban design. From 2008 to 2015, he was the planning director of Newark, New Jersey, one of the most disinvested cities in the country.

In 2015 Rich, alongside Jae Shin, founded the urban design and civic arts studio Hector, which is currently redesigning a 100-year-old park in Philadelphia and recently completed an exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, on contested and conflicted stories of urban development.

“A lot of the struggles people undertake in cities today—whether it be against disinvestment, gentrification, environmental injustice—really represent a shortcoming when it comes to applying democracy to how we design and build,” Rich said in his MacArthur fellow video. “Practicing urban design and planning gives us the change to insert new narratives into landscapes where narratives of oppression already exist. . .Even the smallest details–the width of a staircase, where a sidewalk goes, what a building looks like–reflect our deepest values and principles, whether it’s about the divisions and the difficulties of our society or how we’ve worked to make the places where we all live better for everyone.”

Trevor Paglen [Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation]

Trevor Paglen, Artist Unmasking Mass Surveillance

Artist Trevor Paglen is obsessed with ways of seeing and perceiving, and the MacArthur Foundation lauded his efforts to document “the hidden operations of covert government projects and examining the ways that human rights are threatened in an era of mass surveillance.”

Recently, Paglen, who is 43, has developed an inflatable, satellite-based sculpture that will orbit the Earth as a way to “take back” space from the governments and militaries that currently occupy it. “What would space look like if it were demilitarized? I’m not sure it would exist,” he told Co.Design. He also curated an exhibition on computer vision and how artificial intelligence views the world. But what catapulted Paglen to fame is his work photographing intelligence agencies, military bases, and spy infrastructure through a technique involving the use of astronomy telescopes to photograph terrestrial objects.

National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland. [Photo: Trevor Paglen]

“What drives me is a fundamental and deep curiosity of the world,” Paglen says in a MacArthur video. “We often don’t know how to recognize the things that are all around us all of the time: forces of power, political arrangements, economic norms and I think that’s something art can help us do—teach us how to see.”

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