There is no shortage of international prizes honoring flashy, provocative, beautiful or breathtaking architecture and design.
The new $100,000 Curry Stone Design Prize, administered by the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, is different.
The first Curry Stone Design Prize was awarded Thursday at the Idea Festival in Louisville to a South African architecture firm that, working without pay, designed and is building 10 houses for poor people in Capetown. The houses are made of timbers of wood and steel and bags filled with sand. They cost less than $7,000 each and can be built by their owners.
Beautiful? Provocative? Not in the world of architecture. But for a world where it is estimated that 1 billion people — about 15 percent of the population — live in shanties, projects like this have the ability to reshape the way much of humanity lives.
That was the idea when Clifford Curry and his wife, H. Delight Stone, of Oregon decided to create the prize as part of a $5.5 million gift to UK. Curry had been a successful architect, pioneering the design of housing for elderly people. Curry, a UK architecture graduate, wanted to honor breakthrough design ideas that improve the human spirit, increase awareness of the environment or responde to areas of human need.
Like the famous MacArthur “genius” grants, the Curry Stone Prize comes with no strings attached.
“The concept is they can do whatever they darn well please” with the money, Curry said. “These are motivated people. I want them to figure that out.”
MMA Architects principal Luyanda Mpahlwa, 49, was unable to get a U.S. visa to attend the ceremony because of his anti-Apartheid work in South Africa years ago. But in a telephone interview, Mpahlwa said he expects to use some of the money to continue this sort of work, as well to expand a scholarship program for architects he has started in South Africa.
“There is a lot of need for these projects,” he said. “I am starting to look at what other materials combinations and types we could use. We want to take part in a body of knowledge that contributes to local housing situations.”
MMA was chosen from among five finalists; the others attended the ceremony and received $10,000 cash awards. Thirty anonymous nominators around the world suggested candidates, and a panel of judges met in New York in July to choose four finalists and a winner.
David Mohney, a College of Design faculty member, former dean and secretary of the prize, said MMA was chosen because it is an example of using conventional architecture in an unconventional way to promote social good. But all of the finalists had amazing stories to tell.
Wes Janz, 55, an associate professor of architecture at Ball State University in Indiana, helps people in third-world slums build well-designed housing from scavenged materials. Marjetica Potrc, 55, an artist and architect from Slovenia, works in impoverished communities. One project she discussed was a toilet that doesn’t need water that has been used in shanty communities in Guatemala. Antonio Scarponi, 34, an architect based in Venice, Italy, uses architecture and multimedia arts to illustrate social and political lines that unite and divide people.
The most unconventional finalist was Shawn Frayne, 27, an inventor in Hawaii, who has invented the first non-turbine wind-powered generator. It is small and looks like a violin bow. It uses wind to create very cheap electricity that can replace batteries. It can be used to power lamps, run small refrigerators and charge cell phones.
“Harder problems make for better inventions,” said Frayne, who created the generator after visiting Haiti and thinking that poor people there needed cheaper and safer sources of light than kerosene lanterns. “The problems in emerging countries are no longer isolated, but are showing up everywhere in the world.”
Emiliano Gandolfi, an Italian architect who led a panel discussion of the finalists at the Idea Festival, said the Curry Stone Design Prize recognizes a new sensibility among architects and designers, especially young ones like him, that design is about more than creating beautiful things. It can be about improving the human experience at all levels.
“What we are discovering is a new sensibility,” he said.
Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design, said he’s glad to see the university on the forefront of that movement.
“Many people understand design to be the engine of innovation,” he said. “This prize recognizes social innovation and not just commercial innovation.”