The RIBA President's Medals Student Awards

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Medal Winner 2009
An existing salt mine sits as a scar on the Galapagos Landscape. Once the natural habitat of Flamingos, this salt lake has long been a desolate space ravaged by the nearby restaurant industry. The Galapagos is caught between its massive contribution to the Ecuadorian economy and its value as a historic wilderness.

This project is conceived of as a provocation and speculation on how these two demands may be hybridized as an alternative to the typical conservationist practices applied across the islands. The two traditionally mutually exclusive programs of salt farming and Flamingo habitat are re imagined as a new form of symbiotic designed ecology; a pink wonderland, built from colored bacteria and salt crystallization, dissolving and reshaping itself with seasonal and evaporative cycles. The building becomes an ecosystem in itself, completely embedded in the context that surrounds it.

Formed from fine webs of nylon fibers held in an aluminum frame, this strange string instrument allows the salt farming process to be drawn up out of the lake, returning it to the endemic flamingos whilst at the same time ensuring the continuation of a vital local industry. Using just capillary action, salt water from the lake crystallizes on the tension strings forming glistening, translucent enclosures. It encrusts the infrastructure of a flamingo observation hide and solidifies into a harvestable field ready to be scraped clean by miners.

The project has been developed through scale models that were used as host structures for an in depth series of crystallization experiments. Material erosion, spatial qualities, structurally capacity and evaporative cycles were all determined through physical testing. The architecture and its physical models grew slowly across time, emerging from the salt waters they were immersed in, to become fully developed crystalline structures.

The Galapagos is an ecology in crisis. The project is positioned as part documentary, part science fiction offering both a rigorous technical study and a speculative near future wilderness. An evolving future for the islands is imagined and it demands an evolved and mutated architecture.

Wen Ying Teh


This year the studio have trawled the wilds of genetic modification, augmented bodies and neo biological invention to query today’s idealistic and preservationist views of the natural world. The students were asked to develop their projects as critical tools to instigate debate and raise questions about architectural practice in relation to the social and political consequences of various environmental and technological futures.

For three weeks we voyaged south, following Darwin’s expedition to the Galapagos Islands and South America. There Ying found a precious and fragile wilderness teetering at the point of collapse, an ecology in crisis, bearing the scars of a ravenous tourist economy and Salt mining industry. Her research led her to focus on the cuts and gouges of the Galapagos Salt lakes- a ‘violence’ which has displaced the endangered flamingo flocks but supports a tourist economy vital to the Ecuadorian population.

At the core of her critical approach was Ying’s decision to engage the inevitabilities of the tourist salt mining industry by proposing a new type of hybrid ecology where industry and endemic wildlife can not only co exist but also be mutually beneficial. Her surreal pink landscape is a new type of designed wilderness, a strange nature filled with flamingo flocks and glistening salt- a contemporary recasting of traditional sustainable practises.

The strength of the project is that it is both a speculative investigation of what it means to build within such a fragile ecosystem but also a grounded technical study of the structural and spatial potential of salt as a new building material. The architecture was developed constantly through physical modelling which was then fed back into computational models. Ying meticulously tested the phenomena she was designing with using live experiments and 1:1 studies.

This capacity to be wildly imaginative but at the same time technically rigorous and utterly believable is what gives the project its critical edge. It is an important project, creatively involving itself in a most pertinent debate.

Kate Davies
Liam Young
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