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London-based transdisciplinary design researcher Jingru (Cyan) Cheng has been announced as the 2023 recipient of the Wheelwright Prize, a $100,000 research- and travel-based grant bestowed annually by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). Cheng, who wins for her project Tracing Sand: Phantom Territories, Bodies Adrift, joins past Wheelwright fellows that include, among others, Marina Otero, Germane Barnes, Daniel Fernández Pascual, and Aleksandra Jaeschk.

Per an announcement released by the GSD, Tracing Sand focuses on the “economic, cultural, and ecological impacts” of sand mining and land reclamation in diverse locales across the globe; the prize will fund Cheng’s travel to and investigative research into how sand is mined and used at sites including Floridian beaches, airports in Singapore, the rivers of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, and at immigrant communities in rural China. In addition to conducting research at each focus site, including interviews at these sites with locals and key stakeholders, Cheng also plans to develop educational and public programs along with a multi-media archive that will be “open access and made available for the affected communities, activist groups, and associated researchers,” according to the GSD. 

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Scroll as Method: Structured Ambiguity. Image: Scroll installation of Collective Forms in China at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, 2018, in collaboration with Sam Jacoby; Middle strip photographed by Davide Galli, courtesy Harvard GSD

“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,” elaborates Cheng. “I see architectural materiality 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,” adds Cheng, who currently teaches at the Royal Academy of Art in London and holds two degrees from the Architectural Association (AA): an MPhil in Architecture and Urban Design and a PhD by Design. A 2022 Graham Foundation grantee, Cheng’s work has been exhibited widely including at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (2019), the Venice Architecture Biennale (2018), and at the AA, where it is held in the school’s permanent collection.

Joining Cheng were three other shortlisted finalists for the highly competitive Wheelwright Prize’s 2023 cycle: Isabel Abascal (Mother Architecture: Shaping Birth), Maya Bird-Murphy (Examining Architectural Practice Through Alternative Methodology and Pedagogy), and DK Osseo-Asare (Bucky in Africa: Remembering the Chemistry of Architecture).

This year’s judges included Noura Al Sayeh, head of Architectural Affairs for the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities; Mira Henry, design faculty at Southern California Institute for Architecture; Mark Lee, Professor in Practice of Architecture at Harvard GSD; Jacob Riedel, Assistant Professor in Practice of Architecture at Harvard GSD; Enrique Walker, Design Critic in Architecture at Harvard GSD; and Harvard GSD dean Sarah M. Whiting, who noted that Cheng’s research into sand mining and use has “breadth that makes it relevant to every community across the globe, and specificity that promises to reveal hitherto unknown repercussions of this fragile resource.”