If rapidly changing climates, energy flows, material economies, and migratory populations are the emerging challenges of our time, then the design disciplines offer unique insight on how to navigate these complex, open-ended conditions. Distinct from research in the sciences or humanities, the MDes Thesis Program involves highly interactive ways of thinking and learning, through hands-on, cross-disciplinary, multimedia practices that directly engage the technical, material, spatial, ecological, political, economic, thermodynamic, and planetary dimensions of design. Seeking to empower the next generation of designers and urbanists, the program utilizes a set of novel and alternative methodologies in a collaborative, immersive, and multimedia environment. Ultimately, MDes thesis challenges conventional ways of learning—through field work, fabrication, collaboration, and dissemination—through projects whose scope and diversity are unmatched by any other design school in the world.

John May
Assistant Professor of Architecture Codirector, Master in Design Studies Program

K. Michael Hays
Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory Codirector, Master in Design Studies Program

Xinzhu Elence Chen


A Solar-Adaptive Energy Storing Window System

Advised by Ali Malkawi

Heat transfer through building envelopes significantly contributes to overall energy consumption. Owing to the property of having steady melting/freezing heat storage in a narrow temperature range, phase change materials (PCMs) provide a promising solution to improve building envelope energy management.

With the design objective of channeling the force of natural resources, a solar- adaptive, PCM-integrated window system is proposed that can store and utilize “free” heat from solar radiation. The fully charged PCM panels will transfer the stored thermal energy to the cool air by conduction and warm the air. Therefore, the system is designed to passively reduce total energy consumption and improve indoor thermal comfort.

Parametric studies were conducted to maximize the thermal performance of a PCM-contained panel by varying the inlet air velocity, the melting temperature of PCMs, and the shape, allocation, and size of individual PCM cells. The output of the parametric study identified the optimal PCM panel design and was used as the input of the next stage computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations. To further evaluate and validate the effectiveness of the proposed system, as well as to visualize the airflow of the passively heated air, indoor CFD simulations were also performed. There were two scenarios: the first was to study the efficiency of heating cool indoor air near the facade, and the second was to investigate the performance of the system to heat the cold outdoor air.

Xinzhu Elence Chen, MDes. Infographic showing a cyclical relationship including Design, Model, Parametric Study, and Analysis & Optimization

Ryan L. Thomas


(MOUT) Military Operations in “Urban Terrain”: A Critical Geographic Investigation of Synthetic Training Environments

Advised by Robert Pietrusko

Over the last four decades, the US Department of Defense (DoD) has produced several iterations of military doctrine on the operational environments it functions within, and to no insignificant degree, the increasing relevance of “urban terrain” in its doctrine influences how its military branches operate. The history of urban warfighting doctrine is nascent, considering military strategists have historically avoided cities in wargaming. The defense enterprise has become easily impressionable to forecasting of imminent urban conflict espoused by defense think tanks, private contractors, and policymakers, with little to no regard for histories of urbanization and human settlement that would inform their decisions. These institutions have steered the DoD toward an adamant belief that future conflicts will inevitably be in cities. The result of this assumption has permeated everywhere from the creation of new tactics, techniques, and procedures on warfighting in “dense urban terrain,” to massive investments in virtual and augmented reality industries and the makeshift construction of mock cities and villages across the country and its greater territories. Without a specific enemy, the military constructs one, in technical lands that replicate cities and hybridize cultures for foreign policy objectives. Currently, hundreds of purpose-built artificial cities devoted to simulating warfare in urban areas exist across the United States. This work investigates, through representational simulacra and critical counter-cartography, the emergent urbanizations of the DoD’s synthetic training environment and seeks to broaden the field of urbanism to show the influence that urban warfare preparation produces on the built environment.

Ryan L. Thomas, MDes. Soldiers wearing camouflage crouch on the roof of a building, aiming machine guns onto the empty cityscape.

Anirudh Gurumoorthy


Gilbert Simondon, Information, Individuation, Milieu, Technics: Rethinking Notions of Complexity in Architecture

Advised by John May

This thesis will look at explicating, understanding, and situating three concepts redefined by Gilbert Simondon—information, the relationship between an individual and its milieu, and technics—in the postwar cybernetic turn in the late 1950s and its possible place within architectural history and theory. Gilbert Simondon (1924–1989), though an important French intellectual, was, until recently, relatively unknown to the anglophone world. This thesis begins with a general overview and description of the intellectual terrain that Simondon’s thinking about the concept of individuation grew out of—cybernetics and postwar French epistemology—that led him to the redefinition of these concepts. It then goes on to provide a general overview of the historical intersection of cybernetics and, thereby, complexity sciences and architecture that took place contemporaneously in the mid-1960s, where discourse surrounding information, individual, milieu, and technics enters architecture. This overview traces the shift from a call for holistic systems thinking to one that slips into a later call for formalist, compositional complexity with computational advancements in the late 1980s. Through these two topographies, this thesis finally attempts to speculate an initial stab at a contribution that can be made through Simondon, around the concepts of information, individual, milieu, and technics, to the field of architectural history and theory.

Anirudh Gurumoorthy, MDes. A black and white photograph of Gilbert Simondon speaking while writing on a display board.

Carolina Sepulveda


Sacred Women: Navigating the Journey of Latinas to the United States

Advised by Malkit Shoshan

What design tools and strategies can be implemented by cities and NGOs to facilitate Latinas’ journey to the United States? The migration journey from Central America is particularly predatory and violent for undocumented Latinas. According to Amnesty International, six in ten women and girls experience some harassment or sexual abuse throughout their route. They migrate to escape violence but are abused during their journeys; they have fewer chances to survive while crossing the desert. Once in US territory, they are separated from their children. When released from detention centers, they are dropped at bus stations with no belongings or information on how to continue their trip or contact their relatives. At their final destinations, the resettlement process will depend on their support networks, which can help them find housing, a job, or health care and legal services.

Sacred Women analyses the three steps of the journey—the departure, the transit, and the resettlement—and proposes a shared-based system of information to empower and connect Latinas with existing allies en route. Sacred Women is a space of resistance and knowledge that embraces ancestral wisdom and cross-border solidarity toward Latinas. Ultimately, the project challenges the approach to the immigration crisis by highlighting the agency of women who make use of their squalid resources and solidarity with existent activist networks to claim their right to cross borders. These women have the resilience to nourish their communities, heal themselves, heal others, and to heal the world. That’s why they are sacred women.

Carolina Sepulveda, MDes. Photograph of a woman hugging an adolescent girl while standing in front of hanging lines of clothing and tarps. Text on the right side says, "Migrant Hotline, Online Database, Sacred Women Oracle"
Image credit: Federica Valabrega, “I’m A Survivor Of Violence”: Portraits Of Women Waiting In Mexico For U.S. Asylum, January 16, 2019, National Public Radio
Carolina Sepulveda, MDes. Sacred Women report. The thesis research and project are consolidated in a 122-pages report that offers different reading entries to the project. Text reads: Sacred women: Navigating the journey of Latinas to the United States. A report on how to facilitate Latinas migration.
Carolina Sepulveda, MDes. The book contains the main essay that guides the research, accompanied by mythological, historical, and migrant narratives that invite a non-linear reading of the project.
Carolina Sepulveda, MDes. Cartographies. A series of cartographies present the many scales of the project and the migratory journey's threats and stages. Map 4, the journey northward.
Carolina Sepulveda, MDes. Lexicon. Part of the effort of evidencing the landscape of migration is to present keywords present in the United States and Mexico border and migration regime.
Carolina Sepulveda, MDes. Sacred Women Oracle. Part of the project involves an oracle deck that depicts goddesses from the Meso-American cultures and seeks to guide and empower Latinas regarding their rights. Sample cards include Kuyen, Qana It’zam, and Pachamama.

Jingxuan Zhang


Power and Imaginary: Airbnb as an Urban Regeneration Model in the Former French Concession of Shanghai

Advised by Susan N. Snyder and George E. Thomas

This thesis looks at the role of Airbnb as a disruptive urban regeneration model in the former French Concession of Shanghai. Compared to traditional urban regeneration projects led by the local government and developers, in this area, Airbnb represents a new model based on global digital platforms and driven by imaginaries constructed by mass and social media. This thesis aims to reexamine how the mediascape creates imaginaries about the history and urban culture of Shanghai and how the imaginaries are used as selling points in urban regeneration, especially for Airbnb. Through exploring the relationship between Airbnb and social media, this thesis tries to explain why media becomes the primary agent in this model, spreading homogeneous tastes and lifestyles in local neighborhoods. The research finally points out that instead of providing tourists with access to “authentic” local communities, Airbnb, as a new urban regeneration model, is changing place identities under the influence of mediascapes and global cultural forces.

Jingxuan Zhang, MDes. A photo collage of various residential buildings in an urban setting, both interiors and exteriors. Over these images are the words, "influencer, cinema, photography, design, literature," along with a large hashtag symbol.

Nadyeli Quiroz


Permanence in the Temporal: Artifacts for Freedom in the Rohingya Refugee Camp

Advised by Rahul Mehrotra and Paola Sturla

According to Giorgio Agamben, Western politics divided the Zoe, the biological fact of life of every living being from the Bio, the social and political life in the polis. Zoe remained secluded to the domestic and private life existing within the Oikos. Agamben argues that refugees have been stripped from the political, public, and social exercise of life, the Bio and, reduced only to the naked life, the Zoe.1 The politics of aid delivery, by design, reduce humans to a condition of bare minimum, basic biological needs, in which they have factually lost their human rights. I argue that the artifacts designed and implemented by refugees to negotiate with the bare life offered in the camps are the exercise of Bio. They are practicing a political agency within the administration of what aims to be a space devoid of any public and political life. The artifacts of negotiation of refugees are deviations within the totalitarian design of camps. These artifacts create actual cities and defy the whole narrative of the ephemerality of camps. The artifacts are exercises of freedom within the enclosure, construction of life, and the agency of those under containment. The thesis will explore how to integrate the agency, Bio, and the desires of the refugees expressed in the artifacts for freedom—looking for a planning process that will allow camps to evolve into thriving communities instead of marginalized populations.

1Giorgio Agamben, Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 11.

Nadyeli Quiroz, MDes. Black and white drawing of two women holding children and a third child standing between them. in the background is a village with buildings, palm trees, and grasses.

Fernando Schrupp Rivero


Waterworks in Prewar New York City

Advised by Dilip da Cunha

Picturesque nature and water pipe evolved in parallel in pre–Civil War New York City to unleash two powerful dimensions of today’s city: land-driven real estate—getting rid of water through good drainage—and water-driven leisure—designed to escape landed real estate. This thesis reveals the role played by one design intervention to further these mutually supportive measures: Central Park. Built around the receiving reservoir of the Croton Aqueduct, it introduced picturesque nature to the city alongside the waterworks. This language of the modern city developed in response to the epidemics and pollution associated with Manhattan’s wetlands. Collect Pond’s transformation into Five Points in downtown Manhattan is one early 19th-century case study of this type of evolution. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, will the new postwar city alter its picturesque nature and waterworks?

Fernando Schrupp Rivero, MDes. Drawing of a seal of the Croton Aqueduct. "Built by the City of New York. Commenced A.D. 1857. Water introduced 4th July 1842. Length 41M. Distributing Reservoir Cap. Dis. Res. 21,000,000 gall. Cap. Rec. Res. 150,000,000 gall. Croton Lake Reservoir available capacity 500,000,000 gall."

Samantha Saona


Working with Urban Informality: A Postcolonial Critique of Planning Theory Based on Lessons from the Caño Martín Peña Special Planning District

Advised by Abby Spinak

This thesis adds to the postcolonial perspective by using an empirically grounded analysis of the Caño Martín Peña Special Planning District to offer theoretical interventions. The case has recently been celebrated for combining a robust participatory practice and inventive planning strategies that “work with” the community. However, previous scholarship fails to underscore contextual specificity and the complexity of the process. Thus, I propose a critical methodology to engage with and highlight a systemic understanding of “informal” spaces. Following a multidimensional theoretical framework that converges around risk, situated knowledge, and design politics, this thesis reflects on three questions. (1) How can we improve the living conditions of residents in these areas without asking them to become part of the system that causes their “vulnerabilization”? (2) What is the appropriate scale to think about “working with ‘informality’”? (3) Are the “developmentalist” economic and political projects (capitalist, neoliberalist) the cause of “urban informality”? This thesis suggests that even “successful” participatory processes and sensitive projects are skewed by the politics behind government- approved practices that render the impacted populations legible, and technical documents that are incomprehensible to most. Additionally, I contrast the scale chosen for positive implementable infrastructure and design projects to alternative scales of administering policies that work with the continuous urbanization processes that lead to “informality.” The discussion brings forth how these processes were initially provoked by migration into cities due to imported industrialization operations. Finally, the thesis proposes a decentered and repoliticized framework to reflect on how “urban informality” is created, maintained, and perpetuated.

Samantha Saona, MDes. A photo of a group of people meeting around a conference table with the heading "Working with Urban Informality." Below are four aerial photos of an inhabited landscape with the following titles: Slum Clearance, Urban Renewal, Citizen Participation, Comprehensive Development.
Samantha Saona, MDes. Case study photographs showing the tidal channel, community activities, physical environment, and spatial transformations.
Samantha Saona, MDes. Location map of case study in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Samantha Saona, MDes. Diagram of research process shows the building blocks of the empirically grounded and theoretically guided methodology and includes the interrelation between different sources.
Samantha Saona, MDes. Diagram showing the systemic understanding of the case study depicts complex and multilayered connections between actors, organizations, components, and procedures.
Samantha Saona, MDes. District’s growth and transformation over time shown using maps from 1936, 1962, 1981, 1998, 2002, and 2020.

Weiyi Cao


The State and the Market: Mapping the (In)Equity of Social Rented Housing for Migrants in Chongqing

Advised by Susan N. Snyder and George E. Thomas

The current prevalence of social rented housing, or gongzufang, varies city by city in China. Most cities’ program has targeted low- to moderate-income urban residents and has excluded low-income rural migrants who do not possess local hukou, the permanent residence certificate, from accessing social rented housing. This thesis analyses Chongqing’s migrant-inclusion policy of social rented housing program, which has made migrants eligible to apply for housing dwellings, and its gap between policy justifications and empirical evidence. Although the migrant-inclusion policy has been justified by achieving rural-urban equality, it has been strategically used by the municipal government as a tool for promoting industrial growth.

By deploying hedonic regression models, the study explores the housing preferences of low-income households from the rental market and then estimates the “market value” of each of the twenty-one social rented housing communities. Next, the study identifies two types of social rented housing communities in terms of their shaping forces: The ideology of equality usually results in a community of higher “market value”, while the ideology of productivism leads to a community of lower “market value”. The study maps out which justification has been the dominant force shaping each of the twenty-one social housing communities in Chongqing. While the two justifications of equality and productivism complete each other in the municipal government’s decision-making of social rented housing, the thesis argues that both two types of communities still form underlying conditions that exclude rural migrants and create inequity issues.

Weiyi Cao, MDes. This figure maps the market rented and social rented housing across the metropolitan Chongqing. All projects of social rented housing (pink crosses) are located distant from the most desirable areas as indicated by higher rents (red dots) of the market rented housing. The two earliest projects of social rented housing, which are labeled with numbers 1 and 2 on the figure, are relatively close to the desirable areas and are directly connected with major highways. In contrast, other projects are located on the periphery of the city.
Weiyi Cao, MDes. This figure summarizes how variables of amenities, building attributes, and unit attributes are correlated with the housing rents in both the overall market and the low-cost market. The checkmark means the variable does have a correlation with rents, while the cross mark means no correlation; the upward thumb indicates a positive correlation, while the downward thumb implies a negative correlation. For example, the low-cost submarket, which represents low-income households' choices, do not regard the public transit as a rent premium; however, the submarket value the proximity to primary/middle schools and food markets. This figure implies the different priorities and preferences between the general population and the low-income population when renting housing.
Weiyi Cao, MDes. This figure shows the ratio of actual rents to the estimated "market value" of the twenty-one social rented housing communities. The lower this ratio is, the more attractive the community appears to people because the gap between the "market value" and the actual rents of the community is larger. As we see, the projects' "market value" estimated from the overall model (in red) vary to a large extent from 32% to 56% with an average ratio of 44%; in contrast, their "market value" estimated from the low-cost market (in blue) remains very close, only slightly fluctuating around 59% in terms of its ratio of actual rents to estimated "market rents". This trend implies that different social rented housing projects' quality and popularity are regarded as distinct by the general population, while regarded as relatively similar by the group of low-income populations.