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Published on Apr 23, 2014
The third Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise goes to Colombian-born Quilian Riano. Quilian's approach to social design, blends activism, architecture, and critical theory to meet the needs of underserved populations.
On a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Quilian Riano, then a young man in the U.S. Air Force, had been assigned to help the Red Horse Team, the USAF's engineering corps; their job, to provide drinking water and roads in areas that lacked the most basic infrastructure. The reservation was near Rapid City and the Ellsworth Air Force Base, but a long way from Mr. Riano's home in Hialeah, Florida, and farther still from his birthplace in Bogota, Colombia. Yet he made a profound connection while working with members of the Sioux nation and the Air Force team." In short, my experience in South Dakota would become an inspiration to my decision to go back to Florida and study design."
Upon his discharge, he enrolled as an architecture and design undergraduate at the University of Florida, in 2001, his interest in the participatory design processes that tackle political inequality fully awakened. He was already imagining "how thoughtful design could improve the urban context of working and low-income-class communities, those often forgotten by the mainstream," an interest born of his early years living in the Latino working-class community of Hialeah, where he had immigrated with his mother and sister.
Mr. Riano graduated with a Bachelor of Design, summa cum laude, from the University of Florida, School of Architecture, and a Master of Architecture from Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. He supplemented his formal education with hands-on experience, working in low-income communities in northern Florida and in New Mexico. But it was his collaboration with artist Teddy Cruz on the La Prusia project, in a low-income community in Granada, Nicaragua, that shifted how Mr. Riano thought about participatory processes, "how participation can go beyond a token action during design and become an integral part of a flexible design that changes over time." In clarifying his vision, Mr. Riano realized it had "to straddle...design, art, community organizing, and activism." The inspirations for and challenges to that vision came together for him on a postgraduation trip to his homeland. Observing its social, economic, and political problems through now-trained eyes led him to address all three in the design of a fifty-family cooperative housing project in Facatativa, Colombia. The trip also inspired a research journalism project investigating an effort to remove and relocate low-income inhabitants from the largest port city in the country, with a majority Afro-Colombian population.
In 2009, Mr. Riano founded his firm, DSGN AGNC (Design Agency), with critical activism its guiding tenet, a concept he defines as the process of "continuously assessing the political landscape of each project and working with vulnerable populations to remove injustices and resolve problems that threaten their well-being." Illustrative of the concept in practice is the Corona Plaza Engagement Project, now underway, commissioned by the Queens Museum. Mr. Riano also launched #whOWNSpace, a project inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement "as a way to advocate for and produce urban spaces that are truly public."
Mr. Riano's work has been exhibited widely, at the Venice Biennale, Harvard and Cornell Universities, New York's Center for Architecture, among many others, and has been recognized by awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects, Harvard University, and the Boston Society of Architects. He also makes time to teach, currently at Parsons, The New School of Design.