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Introducing the 2016 Curbed Groundbreakers

Nominated by you, and hand-picked by a panel of esteemed architecture and design professionals

Our annual Groundbreakers award showcases the talents of architects working to change the way the built world functions. But this year, our winners aren’t stopping with buildings. They’re out to change the world.

The six winners for 2016 were chosen by our esteemed jury: author and longtime KCRW host Frances Anderton, architect and dean of the Yale School of Architecture Deborah Berke, architect and urbanist Vishaan Chakrabarti, architect and National Design Award winner Tom Kundig, Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange, executive director Predix at GE Digital Peter Marx, and architect and Columbia GSAPP professor Mabel O. Wilson.

Berke writes, "I wanted to highlight architects who are engaged in a meaningful way with the people and places in which they are working." This year’s class runs the gamut from the idealistic 30-year-old traveling to build in Haiti to the prolific workhorse with more than two decades in the business. But they all have one thing in common: socially conscious design is a cornerstone of their practice. As Alexandra Lange notes in her jury selections, "I looked at the clients, the mode of practice and the aesthetic, seeking choices that are outside the norm for the profession in one or more categories."

"The toughest problem in design is to create wonderful and usable environments in a world of limitations," says Peter Marx. "The hardest constraint of all is, of course, not having much money, which then limits everything else in our commercial-driven world. Doing architecture which brings great design that delights and supports life to those living in a world of scarcity is both the best of design and the best of humanity."

Whether they’re rethinking affordable housing in New York City, designing for underserved communities in Chicago, or building health and community centers in developing nations, the 2016 Curbed Groundbreakers use design to actively improve the lives of the people who will inhabit their buildings.

Sharon Davis

New York, NY

Sharon Davis’s practice may be based in New York, but she spends her days working with humanitarian organizations around the world to create, as Mabel O. Wilson describes it, "elegant and functional civic architecture."

"She is a leader in community-driven, socially impactful design," writes Deborah Berke. "Her buildings don’t just do good, they also look great, ennobling the people who live and work in them." Peter Marx adds, "Her work in Rwanda is textured, beautiful, accessible, and functional—and deliberately supports women, sustainability, and health."

Get to know Sharon.

Kyle Fishburn

Los Angeles, CA

At just 30 years old, Kyle Fishburn has made a name for himself working with local communities in Haiti, designing and building classrooms and medical facilities. "He gets his hands dirty," writes Berke. "His practice works directly with communities and encourages a sense of engagement and ownership, which helps make his projects successful. His holistic approach of local everywhere—local work, local materials, local needs, local constraints—helps Haitian communities stand themselves back up in all ways using delightful design."

Learn more about Kyle.

Paul Lukez

Boston, MA

Sustainability has been key to architect Paul Lukez’s practice long before it became mainstream. He works with a "sensitivity to climate and materials," according to Vishaan Chakrabarti, whether the project is a private home in Massachusetts or a health center in Honduras. "His Honduras project was my favorite of the community buildings for the developing world," adds Lange. "I appreciated the clear back-and-forth between his work in North and Central Americas, and that the influence didn't only go one way."

"[Lukez’s firm] is doing excellent work to bring great design to underserved populations," writes Marx. "They are quietly connecting emergent talent in the United States and its universities to those in need who would never normally be able to afford such access. They are overcoming limitations that go beyond the typical architectural constraints of time and space to including challenges of not even having enough energy."

Get to know Paul.

Nadine Maleh

New York, NY

"Maleh's career demonstrates why it is important to renovate, not just build fresh," Alexandra Lange says of Maleh’s work in New York City. "She has consistently sought solutions to improve the life of poor urban populations without displacement and without wrenching compromise."

From rebuilding a rundown men’s lodging house to rethinking how New York’s public housing should be renovated, Maleh’s "innovative efforts of adaptive reuse build new types of housing opportunities for the diverse low-income and homeless populations," writes Wilson.

Read more about Nadine.

Juan Gabriel Moreno

Chicago, IL

Vishaan Chakrabarti calls Juan Gabriel Moreno a "taker of risk." Moreno is not concerned with creating the next high-profile tower on the skyline; he aims to uplift the underdogs in overlooked communities. And he does it with bold shapes and eye-catching colors.

Wilson describes Moreno’s work throughout his adopted hometown of Chicago as "spirited institutional architecture that captures the imagination of its inhabitants and the public. I've been captivated by glimpses of the UNO as I have ridden the "L" to and from O'Hare."

Learn more about Juan.


Brooklyn, NY

The Brooklyn-based SO-IL, founded by a trio of expats, isn’t afraid to push boundaries or have a little fun with their projects. "SO-IL is one of the most inventive young firms practicing in the US," opines Berke. "I love how their work blurs the line between indoors and out, especially at their new art museum at UC Davis."

Lange agrees: "The Shrem Museum is a huge, beautiful leap forward for this firm in terms of scale and permanence, demonstrating the ideas they have nurtured through their teaching and smaller-scale projects."

"SO-IL's overall design quality is high and they are an interesting practice to see mature," writes Tom Kundig. "The range of work is great and they appear to be a firm that will go to new and great places!"

Get to know SO-IL.


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