Class act: Harvard students honour architecture’s unrealised back catalogue with a pavilion for Design Miami

Watch as Unbuilt takes shape; models in Harvard GSD’s central studio space, Gund Hall, designed in 1972 by Harvard GSD alumnus John Andrews

Over the past ten years, Design Miami has established itself as December's dominant event in the global calendar. With its tropical climate and beach-backed art deco charm, the design platform has never had any problems attracting industry stalwarts to its shores, ensuring that the calibre of work on display year after year is almost always top notch. 

One of the major showpieces of the fair is its architect-designed entrance, with a specially commissioned temporary pavilion installed each year. The designers to have put their definitive stamp on the pavilion in previous years include David Adjaye, Jonathan Muecke and Snarkitecture.

For the 11th edition of the fair, Design Miami has spun the commissioning process on its head. Instead of selecting one architect or practice to work with, the fair has partnered with Harvard University's Graduate School of Design (GSD) on a competition to design the pavilion; a school-wide call for entries among the student body drew 32 teams, together comprising 100 GSD students.

The winning team, made up of Joanne Cheung, Jenny Shen, Steven Meyer, Doug Harsevoort and Yiliu Shen-Burke (five first-year students from Harvard's Master in Architecture programme), proposed a grid-like canopy, decorated with models of unrealised architecture projects from within the GSD community. Named Unbuilt, the structure features 198 individually milled pink foam models that articulate the standard of work produced at Harvard GSD, while capturing the institution's spirit in one fell swoop.  

'In every building that we see, there's so much behind it; most people don't understand how many ideas and concepts get created for a specific site,' explains Rodman Primack, Design Miami's executive director. 'This project to me really captures that energy and potential behind all things. There are so many ideas that don't happen from either an engineering or cost perspective. I love that this gives a window on all of that – it's the poetic side of creating architecture.'

'The idea [to partner with Design Miami] came up following some conversations with [fair founder] Craig Robins', says Mohsen Mostafavi, Harvard GSD's dean. 'We decided it would be a great thing if GSD had a real go at taking on the responsibility of organising a competition and doing the project with the students.

'One of the crucial things is that the students get exposure to what is happening in the real world. Part of the challenge was to create something that was different and to see how we could expose some of the work of the school to a broader audience.'

Since the competition was first announced in March, competing students from Harvard GSD had to assemble themselves into teams of five and work with a member of the faculty as their adviser in order to enter. The teams, spanning architecture, landscape design and urban planning, were then whittled down to five finalists in May. With no specific design brief set, the range of entries ran the gamut. There were students who wanted to deal with Miami very specifically, such as exploring its hot weather and how to create cooling on a temporary basis,' Mostafavi recalls. 'Some ideas addressed how to use ice or water to create sensory environments that would enable visitors not only to see what the space looked like, but also to feel it. There were also projects that created spaces of intimacy, and ones that were very simple and as minimal as possible.'

The final five teams had to present their concepts to an illustrious judging panel made up of both Harvard GSD faculty and Design Miami staff, an intimidating process. Primack recalls, 'To see these groups present and talk about their projects was the most fun I've had in a long time. There's a certain amount of performance that goes into presenting these projects. I'm sure it was very nerve-wracking for these student groups. But this is something they're going to continue to do in their lives, presenting projects to clients and their bosses, advocating the concepts they like to do.

'For me, it was immediately clear that [Unbuilt] was the project that I wanted to do. It spoke to me in a way that the other projects didn't about what Harvard GSD is, which is a learning institution and a place for ideas. It felt like a very generous call to the community. It was not just about bringing something evocative of someone's personal viewpoint, but something that captures the spirit of the place.'

Since winning the competition, the Unbuilt team has spent the past few months collecting project submissions from classmates and faculty alike in order to realise the project. With ideas that date back 20 years to the concepts produced by their fellow finalists in the Design Miami competition all in the mix, the team has engaged the GSD community. Working with Luis Callejas, a lecturer who taught the group in their first year, and professor in practice of architectural technology Hanif Kara, the Unbuilt team collected the concepts as digital design files and had to re-render each of them to make them suitable for casting as foam models, before milling them in a fabrication studio at the school by hand. To hit the target required for the pavilion, they've had to recruit student volunteers to help them mill a minimum of five models a week.

Despite being the youngest team that entered and having only one team member with any competition experience, the value of the opportunity was far from lost on the students. Steven Meyer says: 'The realisation that someone in the school was going to be building [the pavilion] at the end of the year was exciting and not something that comes around much.'

'From the beginning, we knew that this wasn't going to be an ordinary architecture competition,' adds Yiliu Shen-Burke. 'We had two institutions that are unique and separate entities. This pavilion had to represent the aspirations and intentions of both.'

With nearly 200 different projects taking pride of place on the canopy framework, the team also approached GSD alumni and digital-design firm Modelo to create an app to help visitors learn about each project and its creator. Serving like a digital catalogue, the collection of unrealised projects from over the years will go on to live beyond the duration of Design Miami, allowing the designs to have their day.

Summing up the venture, Mostafavi says: '[Unbuilt] is unusual because it's not so much a traditional pavilion. It's very much a concept of the future potential of things. The audience can experience it on two scales: the overall, where from a distance you don't know what it is, and then understanding that it is a kind of archive of possibilities as you get closer.'

Although Unbuilt is in essence a student-generated idea, its execution has the full power of Harvard GSD behind it. As the project inches closer towards its opening date, the baton has passed to Harvard GSD's director of exhibitions, Dan Borelli, to help the team take into consideration logistics and real-life factors, such as how the pavilion will withstand Miami's strong winds, work in accordance with the city's zoning laws and the issues surrounding installing the structure in a car park where thousands of people will be passing underneath. The steel framework has been strengthened and anchored into a cast concrete platform for added stability. Seating underneath the canopy is spread out into a more irregular format to create sociable and secluded areas. Integrated lighting in the canopy also allows the structure to be accessible even after nightfall.

Primack, meanwhile, is optimistic of more student involvement in Design Miami's future. 'There's a real impetus behind us wanting to have student talent integrated into the event, to see students excited about the fair and thinking that there's a possibility for them to move forward in that direction. The event is a platform for collectable design, the majority of which is actually a vintage market. In order to have the collectable design of the future, we need to support young designers now.'

As originally featured in the December 2015 issue of Wallpaper* (W*201)

Left: Mohsen Mostafavi (Dean, Harvard GSD). Right: Rodman Primack (executive director, Design Miami)

The student team that designed the pavilion, Harvard GSD staff and Design Miami's Rodman Primack stand with the engineering model at Harvard GSD's campus. Pictured front left: Mohsen Mostafavi (Dean, Harvard GSD). Right: Rodman Primack (executive director, Design Miami)

(Image credit: Steven Brahms)

Left: architectural models being hand-milled. Right: Joanne Cheung inspects a model at the team's fabrication studio space at Harvard GSD

Pictured left: architectural models being hand-milled. Right: Joanne Cheung inspects a model at the team's fabrication studio space at Harvard GSD

(Image credit: Steven Brahms)


Design Miami is on view from  2 – 6 December. For more information, visit the Design Miami website

Photography: Steven Brahms

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.