PennPraxis Design Fellows take on the real world with design solutions

PennPraxis has been known as the Weitzman School’s hub for students to gain hands-on experience and community connections since its founding in 2001. However, opportunities were limited in number and kind.

Person standing in front of a group of people seated around tables presenting talking points on paper.
Matt Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of City and Regional Planning, working on an engagement strategy for The Park at Penn’s Landing. (Pre-pandemic image: PennPraxis)

When Ellen Neises, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, came to lead PennPraxis, she saw an opportunity for students to take on more ambitious projects, and to build new practice areas that would demonstrate the School’s capacity for interdisciplinary design. In 2014, she had engaged students in designing a comprehensive, community-based resiliency design for a working waterfront community in the South Bronx; the project was awarded $45 million by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the City of New York, and received national media attention.

The quality of the Design Fellows’ work in projects like the South Bronx waterfront helped propel the rapid growth of the program over the last two years. This summer, more than 80 students (many of them in the Class of 2020) and 30 faculty members representing almost every Weitzman program—including architecture, environmental building design, landscape architecture, city planning, urban spatial analytics, fine arts, preservation, and Integrated Product Design—and several labs are working on projects that are led by PennPraxis or led by faculty and supported by PennPraxis.

When PennPraxis introduced the Design Fellows program in 2018, Neises says, “We were thinking about how we could create powerful experiences for students that change their careers.”

The scope of projects is impressive. Frank Matero, professor and chair of the graduate program in historic preservation and director of the Center for Architectural Conservation, led an effort to document the rich history of Pennsylvania’s Slate Belt, an area 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia whose quarries produced half the slate in the United States. Now, Design Fellows from the architecture and landscape architecture departments are building on that work in a dramatic redesign of a slate quarry.

Design Fellows working with PennPraxis Managing Director Julie Donofrio and Matt Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of City and Regional Planning, are involved in the citywide community engagement effort for the new Park at Penn’s Landing in Center City Philadelphia. Professor of Fine Arts Joshua Mosley is working with an architecture student on strategies for using animation to model and communicate complex data, assistant professor of architecture Masoud Akbarzedeh’s Fellows are working on parametric models, and assistant professor of architecture Dorit Aviv is working with two Design Fellows on simulations for cooling and net-zero design. Two MFA students, Emilio Martinez and Emmanuela Ruiz are leading their own interdisciplinary team of five in a project that explores the roles of performance in activism and education called Stages of Learning.

Read more at the Weitzman School.