James Leng, UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design alumnus (B.Arch ‘07) and lecturer in architecture and alumna Mona Ghandi (M.Arch ‘12) were two of the three recipients recognized by the Vilcek Foundation for creative promise in the field of architecture. The Vilcek Foundation highlights immigrant contributions in the arts and sciences.
Each year, the foundation awards prizes in biomedical science and a rotating arts category, this year recognizing accomplishments in the field of architecture. The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise was established to highlight and encourage the groundbreaking work of foreign-born artists, designers and scientists. The foundation often selects recipients who have overcome challenges early in their careers.
James Leng is Lecturer in Architecture at CED and is currently investigating the repurposement of unused spaces and buildings. His project, titled “Useless Architectures: A Search for New Meanings After Obsolescence,” examines the shifting utility of spaces that have outlived their intended purpose.
“I wanted to look at this idea of obsolescence and renewal, and the idea of an architectural afterlife,” he shared. “I was wondering what happens when architecture and infrastructure are deemed obsolete, but before they find a new, second life—that sort of transitional period.”
Born in China in 1984, Leng was 2 years old when his parents immigrated abroad, leaving him in the care of his maternal grandmother. Barred from leaving China — as a government tactic to force his parents’ return — he was only able to join his family in the U.S. at 9 years old, thanks to a loophole brokered by his extended family.
When he came to the U.S., he settled in the San Francisco Bay area, later studying architecture at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Mona Ghandi’s upbringing in Tehran has influenced and informed ongoing interest in adaptative and responsive architectural design, recognizing the unifying and communal role of architecture in facilitating interpersonal interactions. “As an architect, the strong sense of community and social interaction within the very fabric of urban life in Iran have developed a passion in me for unifying human interaction with built environment,” she says.
Ghandi began her architectural studies in Iran at the University of Tehran. Though she thrived academically and professionally, she recognized the gender constraints of continuing to pursue her research in Iran. “I wanted to explore something new — state-of-the-art topics in the architecture field — and pursue my goals in a more equitable context,” she shared. So after graduating, she practiced architecture in Iran before moving to the US to pursue a graduate degree from UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.
Ghandi is now an architecture professor at Washington State University, specializing in research relating to the interplay of architecture and psychology.
Images courtesy of the Vilcek Foundation. Read more about the foundation at vilcek.org.