Island plan lands design prize for Rice

Architecture students score Odebrecht Award for Sustainable Development

A team of Rice architecture students has won this year’s $40,000 Odebrecht Award for Sustainable Development with a plan to improve the lives of workers on oil rigs far from the Brazilian coast.

Though the contest for the best new ideas to promote sustainability is not geared toward architecture, the Rice team of Joanna Luo, Weijia Song and Alexander Yuen entered with confidence.

Petropolis team

The winning Rice School of Architecture team, from left: students Joanna Luo, Weijia Song and Alexander Yuen, and Visiting Wortham Professor Neeraj Bhatia. Photo by David A. Brown/Dabfoto Creative

“Our main reservation was that this was mostly an engineering competition, and we thought architects wouldn’t be taken as seriously,” Yuen said. “But once we knew we were shortlisted, we felt pretty good.”

The contest is sponsored by Odebrecht, a Brazil-based multinational engineering and construction company.

The team’s Petropolis project would define a new frontier for a Brazilian oil industry that seeks to relocate as many as 50,000 members of its workforce offshore to be closer to deep-sea rigs. A series of artificial island communities — some stationary, some movable — would be put within easy reach of the crews that spend weeks and months at sea on rigs hundreds of miles off the coast. The islands would incorporate centralized pipelines to cut down on the use of shuttle tankers to transfer oil to land and offer crews an opportunity to get away from rig-bound routine. Some islands could also be used for food and energy production, adding to their sustainability, Yuen said.


This rendering of a Mobile Oil Island by Rice School of Architecture student Joanna Luo was part of the team's winning entry in the Odebrecht competition.

Students from 173 American colleges and universities entered the competition, which came down to three finalists who were brought to the awards ceremony Oct. 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, hosted by Rice alumna and Houston Mayor Annise Parker ’78.

“Alex, Joanna and Weijia created a project that perfectly illustrates the Rice School of Architecture’s (RSA) commitment to innovative practice,” said Dean Sarah Whiting, the William Ward Watkin Professor of Architecture. “We want our students envisioning an architecture and urbanism that might be implemented five or 10 years from now, the same way students in the natural sciences are thinking about vaccines that might be possible in the near future. Odebrecht is equally innovative in understanding that sustainability in architecture is not about deprivation but is about envisioning new and better ways of living and working.”

The students, who developed their concept under the direction of Visiting Wortham Fellow Neeraj Bhatia, will share half of the prize among themselves; Bhatia will get $10,000, and the remaining $10,000 will go to the RSA.

Island hub

A plan for the Interchange Island Hub component of Petropolis, in a drawing by Rice School of Architecture student Alexander Yuen.

Members of the winning team, who are all in New York serving their preceptorships (RSA’s yearlong internship for architecture students), did the bulk of their design work with no thought of entering a competition, Yuen said. As fourth-year architecture students, they were part of a then-new program, the Watkins Series Studio, that combined a research semester in the fall with a capstone studio in the spring. Nine students were part of three teams in the studio, and their work is detailed on an extensive website at

“Basically, the fall semester was research about the oil industry, about the process of extraction, the living conditions of workers, the culture of Brazil and Rio,” said Yuen, who traveled to Brazil for eight days with classmates, Bhatia and Farès el-Dahdah, a professor of architecture and director of Rice’s Humanities Research Center, who served as one of the team’s in-house critics, in the spring.

He said the first few weeks of the spring studio are usually dedicated to research, “but we had already done that. So we got right into design in January.” When David Vassar, senior assistant to President David Leebron, tipped off el-Dahdah, an expert in Brazilian architecture, about the competition in midsemester, the students recognized an opportunity. A few days of tweaking their designs over the summer were enough to prepare their entry. “It seemed like a really good fit,” Yuen said, “so we thought, ‘Why not give it a shot?'”

Bhatia said sponsorships by KeppelFELS, AECOM and the Shell Center for Sustainability were crucial to the studio not only for financial support but also for the generosity of the two firms during the Brazil trip. “It was nice to get private sponsorship that allowed us to go down there, but also to get the feedback from the real world, so to speak. I think it made the projects much more rigorous in the end.”

All three team members are working in New York City this year, Yuen at Diller Scofidio and Renfro, of which Rice alumnus Charles Renfro ’87 is a partner; Song at ShOP Architects and Luo at Thomas Phifer and Partners, designer of Rice’s Brochstein Pavilion.

The cash makes the New York experience a little easier, Yuen admitted. “I came back to New York able to pay my rent and look forward to a more relaxing year here,” he said.

Teams from Johns Hopkins University and North Carolina State University were second and third, respectively, in the competition.





About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.