Mohsen Mostafavi

Mohsen Mostafavi, architect and educator, is the Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design and served as Dean of the GSD from 2008-2019. His work focuses on modes and processes of urbanization and on the interface between technology and aesthetics. He was formerly Dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University and Chairman of the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. He has taught at numerous institutions including the University of Pennsylvania, Cambridge University, and the Frankfurt Academy of Fine Arts (Städelschule). Dean Mostafavi serves on the steering committee of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the board of the Van Alen Institute, and has served on the design committees of the London Development Agency (LDA) and the RIBA Gold Medal. He is a consultant on a number of international architectural and urban projects. His publications include On Weathering (MIT, 1993); Delayed Space (Princeton, 1994); Approximations (AA/MIT, 2002); Surface Architecture (MIT, 2002);Logique Visuelle (Idea Books, 2003); Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape (AA Publications, 2004); Structure as Space (AA Publications, 2006); Ecological Urbanism (Lars Müller Publishers/Harvard GSD, 2010); Implicate & Explicate (Lars Müller Publishers, 2011); and Louis Vuitton: Architecture and Interiors (Rizzoli, 2011).

Charles Waldheim

Charles Waldheim is a Canadian-American architect and urbanist. Waldheim is John E. Irving Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and director in the Office for Urbanization. Waldheim’s research examines the relations between landscape, ecology, and contemporary urbanism. He is author, editor, or co-editor of numerous books on these subjects, and his writing has been published and translated internationally. Waldheim is recipient of the Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome; the Visiting Scholar Research Fellowship at the Study Centre of the Canadian Centre for Architecture; the Cullinan Chair at Rice University; and the Sanders Fellowship at the University of Michigan.

Aziz Barbar

Aziz Joseph Barbar is a Lebanese architect and research associate in the Office for Urbanization. Barbar graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design with a Master in Design Studies in Technology and holds a Bachelor of Architecture with distinction from the Lebanese American University. His experience and research interests focus around topics of computational geometry, automated construction techniques, and data analysis in relation to building performance and urban form. Barbar has taught landscape architecture studios at the GSD. Prior to his work at Harvard, he worked for distinguished architectural and engineering offices in Lebanon and Austria.

South Florida and Sea Level

“We do not have time to deny the effects of climate change… Nowhere is it going to have a bigger impact than here in South Florida.” – Barack Obama, 2015

The Harvard Graduate School of Design and the City of Miami Beach are partnering on a multiyear study of the impacts of and potential responses to sea level rise for coastal communities in South Florida. This research project will examine the implications of rising sea levels and increased storm events on the economy, ecology, infrastructure, and identity of Miami Beach in relation to its metropolitan and regional contexts. The study will develop planning strategies to anticipate future potentials, and to mitigate present threats. As Miami’s coastal barrier islands form one of the most recognizable and singularly valuable cultural landscapes in the world, the study of Miami Beach reveals the potentials for ecological and infrastructural strategies as alternatives to large single purpose engineering solutions.

The emergent topic of urban adaptation to the effects of climate change is among the more pressing areas of research for those engaged in the built environment. While it was not entirely clear how the mitigation of climate change implicated the disciplines of architecture, urban design, or planning, the more recent focus on adaptation to ongoing effects of anthropogenic climate change puts those fields at the center of the conversation. Over the past several years the North American discourse on the subject has sensibly focused on the significant case studies of New Orleans post Katrina and New York post Sandy. Both of these cases have engendered a range of public discourse, planning proposals, and design strategies for living with the ongoing reality of increased storm events, rising sea levels, and a host of secondary and tertiary effects associated with the new reality. In each of these cases the design disciplines have been central to the projection of alternative futures for these vulnerable major metropolitan centers. While these cases have provided unique contexts for the advancement of disciplinary knowledge, professional practices, and societal engagement with the subject of urban adaptation to sea level rise, they have reinforced a tendency toward the defense of relatively densely concentrated urban agglomerations through the deployment of large hydrological engineering systems. By contrast, much of the North American coastline, and its associated urbanization resist such approaches by the realities of their geography, hydrology, and patterns of urbanization. Among the more extreme cases in this regard is the present status and uncertain future of South Florida’s coastal communities.

Using the vehicle of Miami Beach as a case in point, the Harvard Graduate School of Design and its partners will examine the implications of sea level rise and increased storm events on the sprawling urbanism of metropolitan Miami and its numerous municipalities and communities. The low-lying coastal conditions and singular cultural heritage of Miami Beach resist the types of massive civil engineering projects that have recently been proposed for London, Venice, or other major international examples. Given the reliance of South Florida’s economy and identity upon the specific landscape conditions of Miami Beach, this research project proposes to use the frameworks of green infrastructure, landscape ecology, and cultural heritage as potential responses to looming threats associated with sea level rise.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Aziz Barbar, Matthew Coogan, Rosetta Elkin, Francesca Romana Forlini, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Helen Kongsgaard, Christian Lavista, Chris Merritt, Javier Ors-Austin, Richard Peiser, Maggie Tsang, Lindsay Woodson, and Jessy Yang.

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Airport Landscape

“If the erasure of conventional boundaries is the most salient spatial feature of the late-twentieth-century condition, the airport may be taken as its most perfect landscape expression.” – Denis Cosgrove, 1990


Given the rapid growth of air travel that came alongside the great expansion of cities, many airports have since become obsolete, underutilized, and subsequently abandoned. Reasons for this include insufficient size of facilities, locations that became unfavorable for airport operations, decommissioning of military uses, and the functional obsolescence of buildings. With a database of over 1800 decommissioned airfields around the globe, we claim that the abandonment of airports is a pervasive phenomenon globally. Within a decade, hundreds of urban airports will cease operations. What will be done with these flat, concrete, highly complex sites—many of them in the center of cities—once they are no longer needed for air travel? The Airport Landscape Initiative gathers and examines contemporary design proposals for the ecological enhancement of operating airfields and the conversion of abandoned ones.

The Office examines the airport as a central site and case study for the practice of landscape and ecological urbanism conveyed through a variety of disciplinary perspectives including: exhibition (2013) and publication (2016) titled, Airport Landscapes: Urban Ecologies in the Aerial Age, with Sonja Dumpelmann, and two research publications Airfield Manual: Field Guide to the Transformation of Abandoned Airports (2017), and the Airfield Manual: The Case of the Mendoza Aeroparque (2017). Recommendations are not considered as design projects but as principles conveyed through design scenarios. For example, the Airfield Manual compiles case study strategies and best practices for the conversion of decommissioned airports for a variety of new uses. Written for an audience of civic, business, and political leaders as well as for directors of aviation, engineers, and managers, Airfield Manual offers an executive summary of the issues and options attendant to the ownership, management, deactivation, and decommissioning of the airport site.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim (PI), Sonja Dümpelmann, Pedro Aparicio, Sara Favargiotti, Matthew Moffitt, Lane Rubin, Ruben Segovia, Dana Shaikh Solaiman, and David Zielnicki.

Data, Design, Decision

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”  — Herbert Simon, 1971

Recent claims around big data, smart cities, and the Internet of Things suggest that we are on the verge of an unprecedented wave of information about the contemporary city. From IBM’s early “smarter cities” initiative to Google’s recent foray into “civic innovation technologies,” a variety of companies have entered the marketplace of urban informatics. At the same time, a number of open source developers have contributed platforms and strategies to help cities operationalize data for the public good. Governments have responded to a call for transparency and innovation by releasing data into the public domain for others to access, analyze, and leverage toward alternative and better futures. Today, a range of technology advocates, from technology corporations and open-source developers to architects, planners, and urban designers are advancing strategies to effectively resolve urban questions as data infiltrates the public realm. Concurrently, developments in design methodology, and the increasing prevalence of design thinking in the domains of business, public policy, and information technology, among others, promise innovation in decision-making processes.

While technological and social change may, in fact, produce more and better information, the status of that information relative to decision-making, especially in the urban context, has been a longstanding area of research in the design disciplines. Over the past half-century, the discourse and practices associated with design thinking have been proposed to describe the role of design in dealing with a surplus of data. Beginning with discussions of design methodology in architecture and urban design, design thinking emerged as a means to address the complexity of open societal systems through a propositional model of intervention in the world. In contrast to empirical or descriptive models of inquiry, design thinking is most often propositional. Rather than simply describing the world as found, design is capable of describing how it might change. This projective condition for design is most often concerned with material, spatial, or temporal interventions in the world. In this respect, design thinking is often characterized by its capacity to propose alternative and better futures, particularly in contexts where traditional forms of scientific inquiry are found inadequate to the complexity of the situation at hand.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Helen Kongsgaard, and Robert Pietrusko.


Heliomorphic Manhattan

“For decades the optimal milieu for a variety of human activities has been achieved mainly through energy input… now a building can be transformed into a quasibiological system that sensitively responds to environmental variations, opening itself like a blossom, harnessing and absorbing ambient energies.” – Vladimir Matus, 1988


Heliomorphic Manhattan revisited changes, conceptual and projective, that contemporary models of computational geometry have brought to this design model. The topics of solar orientation and social order, public health, and political economy were fundamental questions for many protagonists and projects of modern planning. In the wake of the collapse of modern planning, singular models of social urban order based on latitude and solar equity have given way to neoliberal models of market-driven urbanization.

The speculative modeling of Heliomorphism was disseminated through a range of disciplinary audiences, including academic conferences and international exhibitions. The GSD conference Heliomorphism (2016) convened an international group of GSD faculty, doctoral candidates, and a select group of GSD alumni to examine its present potentials through three discursive frames — plug-ins, commons, and zero-sum — and showcased the work of Heliomorphic Manhattan.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Pedro Aparicio, Aziz Barbar, Mariano Gomez-Luque, Helen Kongsgaard, and Soo Ran Shin.


“The natural sciences are concerned with how things are. Design on the other hand is concerned with how things ought to be.” – Herbert Simon, 1969

The topic of solar orientation and urban form is both perennial and, once again, timely. The discourses and practices of ‘ecological urbanism’ have turned our focus to the terrestrial topics of hydrological connectivity and ecological function. Heliomorphism proposes to revise and extend the ecological urbanism agenda by returning to solar performance. Recent projects by a number of leading architects and urbanists have suggested new forms of urban order through solar orientation. In many of these projects, designers correlate the shape of the city to a complex and contradictory economy of solar performance.

The topics of solar orientation and social order, public health, and political economy were fundamental questions for many protagonists and projects of modern planning. In the wake of the collapse of modern planning, singular models of social urban order based on latitude and solar equity have given way to neoliberal models of market driven urbanization. The inaugural conference of the Harvard GSD Office for Urbanization returns to this archaic aspect of urban order, and convenes an international group of GSD faculty and doctoral candidates, as well as a select group of GSD alumni to examine its present potentials through three discursive frames: plug-ins, commons, and zero-sum.


Ralph Knowles’s concept of the ‘solar envelope’ proposed a design tool that anticipates contemporary interests in parametricism and relational modeling. The envelope offered a projective form through which urban morphology was indexed to solar performance. The technological developments of the last decade have enabled an unanticipated degree of precision and feedback, potentially infusing new possibilities into an idea that has a half-century of history. Plug-ins revisits the changes, conceptual and projective, that contemporary models of computational geometry have brought to this design model.


Independent of location or latitude, access to the sun is considered an ancient and inviolable right in many cultures. Several current politico economic conceptions, however, protect it for health considerations while others regulate it for energy reasons. Regardless of these two distinctions, commons reconsiders both types of solar access to be issues of social equity and it examines, accordingly, the tensions that exist between built form through capital accumulation and access to sunlight through environmental consensus.


The energy crisis and economic shocks of the 1970s led to experimental and counter-culture practices of architecture and urbanism. These practices enabled the emergence of domestic applications and DIY methods of implementation in a new political economy of solar energy. The current environmental crisis embraces zero-carbon responses and has pushed the scale of operation to neoliberal corporate and governmental urbanizations. Zero-sum reviews the shifts from the domestic to the urban, from the individual to the conglomerate (political or economical), from the alternative to the new normal.

Project Team: Charles Waldheim, Sergio Lopez-Pineiro, and Daniel Ibañez.

Event Program

Sustainable Exuma

“We, together, acknowledge the on-going need to have citizens embrace the concept of ownership of our natural environment in the historical context, as well as those things of value, which are crafted by people over the ages.”  – Philip Brave Davis, 2013

This multi-year ecological planning project is a collaboration among the Government of The Bahamas, the Bahamas National Trust, and Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). The goal is to facilitate the design and management of a more sustainable future for the Exuma archipelago, and The Bahamas more generally.

The project has two parallel and mutually informing components: research and education. These components work to inform the development of proposals and interventions as well as the building of capabilities for local empowerment. An important part of the project is a series of Scholarships for the degree programmes as well as opportunities for Bahamians to engage in the summer Career Discovery Programme at the GSD. Furthermore, the project is integrated with the research and pedagogy of the GSD.

The project seeks to understand local issues through various forms of public engagement. Public forums, workshops, and conferences are part of the process, in addition to fieldwork that facilitates the connection of researchers with residents. The first year focused on fieldwork including participation in daily routines that created a better understanding of local issues particularly across Exuma and more generally across The Bahamas. The second year of the project focuses on proposal making, where we design and imagine projects that have the potential for a long-term spatial and economic impact, while the third year focuses on a plan for action and implementation.

Project Team: Mohsen Mostafavi (PI), Gareth Doherty (co-PI), Filipe Vera, Fadi Masoud, Jose Maria Ortiz Cotro, Tomas Folch, Fábio Duarte, Robert Daurio, Mariano Gomez Luque.

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Jeffrey S. Nesbit

Jeffrey S. Nesbit is an American architect, urbanist, and postdoctoral research fellow in the Office for Urbanization. His research focuses on processes of urbanization, infrastructure, and the defense landscape. Currently, Nesbit is studying the 20th century spaceport launch complex at the intersection of architecture, aerospace history, and the rise of “technical lands.” He has written several journal articles and book chapters on infrastructure, urbanization, and the history of technology, and is co-editor of Chasing the City: Models for Extra-Urban Investigations (Routledge, 2018), Rio de Janeiro: Urban Expansion and Environment (Routledge, 2019), and New Geographies 11 Extraterrestrial (Actar, 2019).

Common Frameworks

“We believe passionately that those cities that are positioned to excel in this time of global change are pursuing broad, integrated strategies to tap hidden value, celebrate ecology and culture, attract people and investment and overcome financial and operational inefficiencies to define success.” – AECOM

The Harvard GSD AECOM Project on China is a three-year research and design project premised on two fundamental ambitions: recuperating an idea of the city and pursuing alternative forms of urbanization in response to the challenges posed by the developmental city in China. The former treats the project of the city as a cultural, political, and aesthetic act; the latter views the city as a site for urbanization, articulated through architecture, landscape, and infrastructure. This endeavor is analytical and propositional in equal measure.

Each year, the Project on China focuses on a theoretical problem and practical challenge posed by the model of the developmental city in China, using a particular city as an exemplar. The first year focuses on the problem of the megaplot, the basic planning unit for rapid and speculative urbanization, using Xiamen as a case study. The second year investigates the challenges faced by cities in city-regions and the effects of cross-border urbanization, with Macau as the paradigm. The third year examines the status of the countryside in the context of state-driven initiatives to urbanize rural areas, with a focus on existing villages and in-progress new agricultural towns.

Project Team: Christopher C.M. Lee (PI), Mohsen Mostafavi, Simon Whittle, Peter G. Rowe, Rahul Mehrotra, Piper Gaubatz, and Jianfei Zhu.