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Riff Studio

A newly formed collaborative brings together designers Zena Mariam Mengesha, Rekha Auguste-Nelson, Farnoosh Rafaie, and Isabel Strauss.

Farnoosh Rafaie is a lecturer at the USC School of Architecture and a practicing designer at the irreverent architecture-based practice Design, Bitches. A native Californian, she retains an innate interest in exploring an architecture of unique and peculiar congeries of everyday suburbia as well as the distinction between remarkable to unremarkable ways of living. Her contributing work has been published in Detail Magazine, OBL/QUE, Pasajes Arquitectura y Critica, and Platform at the Harvard GSD. She received her bachelor's in architecture from California Polytechnic State University and her master’s from Harvard Graduate School of Design with distinction.
Zena Mengesha earned her master of architecture at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and her BA at Harvard University in visual and environmental studies. She currently works at Selldorf Architects in New York City. In the past, Zena has worked in architecture and design at a variety of scales including set design, fine art, residential ground-up and renovation projects, masterplanning, and mixed-use new construction. Her research interests include housing and the future of mass migration due to climate change.
Rekha Auguste-Nelson received a master’s degree in architecture with distinction from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2018. She was the recipient of the Alpha Rho Chi Medal. Trained in furniture-making at the North Bennet Street School, Auguste-Nelson served as head technical assistant of the GSD fabrication lab from 2016 to 2018. She received a bachelor of arts in history with honors from Harvard College in 2013. Auguste-Nelson has worked for design-build practices Marmol Radziner and Stack + Co. She is currently a superintendent at Consigli Construction Co., Inc.
Isabel Strauss recently completed her master’s in architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She received her AB from Harvard College with a concentration in the history of art and architecture. She has a professional background in museum collection management and scenic design. She has worked for Johnston Marklee, Michael Maltzan Architecture, SOM New York, Todd Rosenthal Scenic Design, the Goodman Theater, and the Whitney Museum. Strauss worked to establish the African American Design Nexus with the Frances Loeb Library in 2017 and contributed to research for the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Project from 2020 to 2021.

Architecture of Reparations

Venue: Bronzeville Artist Lofts

The Architecture of Reparations started with living in the neighborhood of Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. While its streets are dotted with many beautiful and ornate stone row houses, there are gaping holes in the landscape—why are these buildings missing? This question led to two years of research that uncovered a known history: in the middle of the twentieth century, the South Side Planning Board, a collection of private institutions with an urgent need to acquire centrally located land at a bargain price, capitalized on a “slum” clearance program, engineered by the city and state governments, which facilitated land condemnation and subsequent land acquisition for private gain. As a result, twenty-six thousand families in the Black Metropolis were intentionally displaced; Black residents affected by these atrocities have not been compensated for the physical, financial, and psychological trauma inflicted upon them. Although documented by many historians and remembered by many Chicagoans, few architects learn the history that lies directly beneath the foundation of Mies van der Rohe’s S.R. Crown Hall on the Illinois Institute of Technology’s campus. 

Research into the history of The Black Metropolis and its relationship to the Illinois Institute of Technology fueled the first phase of this project, a public Request for Proposal (RFP) entitled Architecture of Reparations that tells the story of erasure in Bronzeville and proposes Reparations in the form of housing as an “both/and” response to this known history. The second phase of this project involved responding the RFP as a group of designers using vacant land, available land, owned by the city. In turn, this project of trying to imagine alternate futures in spite of the past, without ignoring all of the beauty that is present, demanded that we ask both our colleagues and the general public to share their own stories and potentially, their own Architecture of Reparations.