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Introducing: 2017 Curbed Groundbreakers

Four architecture firms snagged this year’s awards

Each year, in order to select a winning class of Curbed Groundbreakers, we task our group of jurors with a few not-small feats: Award cutting-edge work that keeps the public at the forefront. Highlight mid-career architects and designers with built work under their belts. Look for innovations in sustainability, studio practice, pro-bono work, new technology, and diverse audiences.

This year’s winning Groundbreakers—LA-Más, Bionic, SCAPE, Abruzzo Bodziak Architects—all hail from major, and progressive, American cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, respectively. And to a one, the jurors ranked public interest as equal to design talent in selecting the four winners.

Concrete arch with open bottom, about one foot high, styled in natural sunlight on a white background
Groundbreakers honorees will receive a trophy designed by experimental furniture, object, and interiors studio Chen Chen and Kai Williams.

Philip Freelon, design director at Perkins + Will, explains his reasoning: “I was interested in high-impact projects that were delivered within modest budgets—great design should be enjoyed by everyday people in the public realm.” Ford Foundation president Darren Walker elucidated a similar approach, lauding work that is “responsive to the public, serving a greater good, and consistent with a larger social justice mission.”

Susan Chin, executive director of Design Trust for Public Space, placed high value on “scalable solutions to climate change, public health, or social systems,” while Linda Taalman (those “creating well-crafted and aesthetically surprising solutions”) and Marlon Blackwell (“innovative approach to the design problem and typology, and for a balance between use and beauty”) further underscored the importance of designing with real solutions in mind.

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t nod to the impressive group of semifinalists who made it to the top of the heap in this year’s Groundbreakers competition. Chances are you’ll be reading more about them soon, right here on Curbed:

  • Amanda Williams, a Chicago native who creates active interventions examining “racially charged city spaces,” to engage both with artistic partners and the community
  • David Galullo of Rapt Studio, whose studio incorporates fabrication, graphic design, strategy, and an overall holistic approach to integrated physical and digital environments
  • Far + Dang, a Dallas firm whose primarily residential work is exquisite, both “conceptually rigorous and constructionally rational”
  • Heather Holdridge, sustainability manager at Lake|Flato Architects out of San Antonio, Texas, who directs the firm in evaluating appropriate passive systems and energy modeling throughout the design process
  • LAMAS, a wholly collaborative firm based in Toronto whose witty, playful, and sensitive designs engage with the historical and vernacular built environment
  • Mehrdad Yazdani, out of Los Angeles, who focuses on innovation in medical buildings and technology and runs the experimental, research-based laboratory arm of Cannon Design’s global practice
  • Sanders Pace, a practice in Knoxville, Tennessee, that tackles design challenges at every scale, from historic preservation of an overlooked International Style housing enclave to an ambitious masterplan of a greenway and nature-trail system
  • SILO AR+D, a partnership who work and teach in Ohio, North Carolina, and Arkansas—areas of the country that are often overlooked in award recognitions and flashy architecture commissions
  • Tessa Smith of Artisans Group, principal architect at a design-build firm in Washington State that is leading the charge for accessible passive homebuilding in the Pacific Northwest
  • The Principals, a Brooklyn practice that combines architecture, industrial design, and technology to create projects that forge new connections between humans and their surroundings

—Kelsey Keith


Los Angeles, CA

LA-Más—whose practice is, as juror Philip Freelon points out, “fun stuff for and by everyday people”—is run by architect Elizabeth Timme and planner/policy wonk Helen Leung. Their projects tie together street, neighborhood, local business, and affordable housing in an effort to help “lower-income and underserved communities” in Los Angeles shape their future through policy and architecture. As Susan Chin, executive director of Design Trust for Public Space, puts it: “Every American city needs a LA-Más to help underserved communities use the power of good architecture to activate neighborhoods.”


New York, NY

Landscapes created by SCAPE, a New York City practice whose co-principal, Kate Orff, was recently awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, “are driven by site and by community, carefully tuned to each place in terms of context, climate, and social interaction.” Juror Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, highlights an “incredible adaptive element to underused space in communities desperately in need of activated and inspiring environments. The thoughtfulness and holistic approach in [SCAPE’s] design shines through.”


San Francisco, CA

Bionic, a landscape studio led by Marcel Wilson, “provides a unique approach to urban design that transforms reclaimed space,” posits Darren Walker. “The projects show both a vital responsiveness to the communities and a creative approach that inspires.” Bionic’s mix of landscape and hardscape—which juror Marlon Blackwell describes as “bold surfaces, sophisticated edges, and provocative terrains”—comes to fruition in a range of projects public and private, including large-scale works like the India Basin waterfront redevelopment and a streetscape for the Pittsburgh Gateway.

Abruzzo Bodziak Architects

Brooklyn, NY

Brooklyn-based studio Abruzzo Bodziak Architects “contribute a gently transgressive approach to vernaculars: rural, suburban, and urban,” writes Marlon Blackwell. “I especially enjoy their ability to innovate with unexpected material and graphic articulation.” Overwhelmingly, our jury was struck by the exquisite quality of the duo’s projects: “The work is beautiful, well detailed, inventive, and elegant,” writes Linda Taalman of Taalman Architecture. “They are operating in multiple media and scales, moving seamlessly between them.”

Writers: Lauren Ro, Jenny Xie, Patrick Sisson, Mary Jo Bowling

Editors: Asad Syrkett, Mariam Aldhahi, Kelsey Keith

Photographers: Winnie Au, Maggie Shannon, Cayce Clifford

Photo editor: Audrey Levine


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Abruzzo Bodziak Architects has an eye for detail and a heart for the city

View all stories in Groundbreakers