Harvard GSD’s 2020 Wheelwright Prize Goes to Daniel Fernández Pascual

The London-based architect and Cooking Sections co-founder will use the prize’s $100,000 grant to research intertidal zones, which may have an untapped ability to produce regenerative building materials.

Climavore: On Tidal Zones (2017-ongoing) by Cooking Sections. Photography by Nick Middleton, courtesy Atlas Arts.

The Harvard Graduate School of Design’s annual Wheelwright Prize awards $100,000 to a promising early-career architect who’s pursuing travel-based research that may leave a wide-ranging impact on the field. Previous winners have circled the globe to unpack a wide range of social, cultural, environmental, and technological issues, such as Aleksandra Jaeschke’s study of greenhouse architecture and Aude-Line Dulière’s investigation of material flows in set design construction. This year, the college selected the Spanish-born architect Daniel Fernández Pascual, who works closely with the intertidal zone—coastal territories that are exposed to air at low tide, and covered with seawater at high tide. 

Fernández Pascual’s proposal, “Being Shellfish: The Architecture of Intertidal Cohabitation,” posits that the intertidal zone can offer more responsible ways to inhabit the planet and provide regenerative building materials. His research finds that two unexpected forms of aquatic life—seaweed and shellfish—have been crucial sources of nutrients and materials for thousands of years, thus suggesting the potential for alternative uses in modern-day building construction. “Seaweed and bivalves have been used for many different purposes across millennia and regions,” says Fernández Pascual, who has a PhD from the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London, as well as master’s degrees in architecture and urban design. “There are elaborate systems to use bivalves in cement aggregates and seaweed for thermal insulation.”

Daniel Fernández Pascual. Photography by Lourdes Cabrera

These alternative uses may help alleviate the building industry’s staggering environmental impact. The production of materials like concrete, aluminum, and steel cause massive amounts of carbon emissions due to high embodied energy content, as well as air, water, and noise pollution and the destruction of natural habitats. According to the ecological design nonprofit Kleiwerks, the construction industry consumes approximately half of all resources extracted from nature—findings that lend gravity to Fernández Pascual’s research. “As awareness about the environmental footprint of construction increases, there’s an urgency to find materials that are responsive to dynamic ecosystems and to support eco-social innovation and architectural ingenuity along coastal zones,” he says.

Though his research will focus primarily on aquacultures, it also offers a new leap forward in achieving social equity and food safety within the coastal communities of Chile, Taiwan, China, Turkey, Japan, Zanzibar, Denmark, and New Zealand, where he’ll conduct on-site studies with local scientists. One key goal of “Being Shellfish,” he says, is “understanding forms of cohabitation between humans and non-humans to support thriving ecosystems and societies.” It’s a timely topic that he has long explored with Cooking Sections, the experimental design practice he co-founded with Alon Schwabe in 2013. The studio’s site-specific Climavore project, an installation-performance piece that has been underway on the shoreline of Scotland’s Portree, Isle of Skye, since 2015, vouches for more flexible forms of eating, such as shifting to drought-resistant crops during periods of water scarcity. By exploring how food consumption can respond to environmental conditions, Climavore suggests, perhaps we can dismantle the pressures enforced by large-scale agribusiness.

Offsetted (2019) by Cooking Sections. Photography by James Ewing

“[Being Shellfish] directly addresses one of the greatest threats our globe faces—climate change—by tackling one of architecture’s greatest contributors to that threat—concrete,” says Sarah M. Whiting, Dean and Josep Lluis Sert Professor of Architecture at Harvard GSD, who served on the 2020 Wheelwright Prize jury. “Daniel has planned a dynamic research effort, reaching out to territories and societies that lie outside much of the architectural canon but that each offer variations on a theme: alternatives to using concrete as a building material.” 

Fernández Pascual will launch Being Shellfish in two distinct phases—a response to travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In phase one, he plans to start conversations and research from afar. “There’s a lot of work that can be done remotely,” he says. “We chose these sites because of ongoing conversations we have with researchers and locals. The idea is to continue, expand, and open new discussions, which can be done from afar until we see what happens in the coming months.” Site visits and on-the-ground research will occur later on—”it’ll happen whenever it can happen,” he says, noting that concerns surrounding the pandemic will likely factor into his findings.

According to the Wheelwright Prize jury, this flexibility and big-picture approach helped seal Fernández Pascual’s fate as the 2020 prize recipient. “The potential for an investigation to play out so globally is rare,” says Whiting, “but the relevance of this topic and the care with which Daniel has organized his research agenda make me confident that his work will have a profound and widespread impact.” 

What Is Above Is What Is Below (2018) by Cooking Sections. Photography by Cooking Sections

Though his research may offer breakthroughs in sustainable construction, Fernández Pascual acknowledges that there’s no single panacea to staving off climate change—multiple approaches are needed. “It’s an interconnected system,” he says. “Our real challenge is figuring out how to intervene in multiple ways within different networks. We need to be able to listen and seize different opportunities that come along.” Fernández Pascual, whose proposal was chosen among three finalists and 170 applications, aims to use the $100,000 grant to create an educational facility on coastal ecologies based on his research. 

For now, he’s grateful for the opportunity to help advance architectural knowledge in the era of climate emergency. “We live immersed in ecologies that are eroding and changing at a rapid state,” he says. “The current global pandemic is just another sign of that environmental crisis.”

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