In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban activist Jane Jacobs states, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Mojdeh Baratloo appreciated this better than most. An architect, professor, community advocate, and urban designer, Baratloo, known affectionately to her peers and students as “Moji”, dedicated her life to helping people understand the built environment, by facilitating collaboration and communication across social boundaries and disciplines alike.
Born in Tehran, Iran, on January 21st 1954, Moji came to the United States to study Architecture at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, where she earned her B.S. and Masters of Architecture in 1978. In 1979, Moji moved to New York City, where she continued to work as both an architect and a founding member of Storefront for Art and Architecture, a nonprofit organization committed to showcasing innovative thinking in art, architecture, and design. She also served on the Architecture and Urban Design faculty at Parsons The New School for Design and at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). Her professional and academic roles led her to establish a global network of colleagues and friends, all culminating in 2004, when Moji founded URGe (Urban Research Group), an interdisciplinary research center focused on better understanding contemporary global cities.
Moji passed in April of 2013 after a long bout with cancer, at the age of just 59 years old. Her students and peer professors, architects, designers, and urbanists all over the world felt a need to memorialize her tremendous impact. Justin Garrett Moore, a professor at Columbia, planner, and community activist, first met Moji, whom he affectionately refers to as his “New York mom” in the late 1990s as a student in her summer Introduction to Architecture course at Columbia University.
“Even in that short six week course, she truly made me see the world differently,” he explained.
One way that Justin and several of Moji’s admirers have continued to celebrate her life is through the creation of the Urban Urge Awards, an awards program established to provide funding to designers and community members to do their own projects, giving both professionals and ordinary people the opportunity to make a real, tangible impact in their cities.
The idea for the Urban Urge Awards was originally conceived by several of Moji’s close colleagues from GSAPP, including Moore, Richard Plunz, Geeta Mehta, Skye Duncan, Dongsei Kim, and Fatou Dieye, Nickie Huang, as well as Moji’s daughter Halleh Baratloo Balch. Using ioby as a platform, they raised over $25,000 to be distributed in four different types of grants. These range from the Urge Awards, a $4,000 grant intended for design and planning and community development professionals to execute a larger-scale project, to the Urge Seed Grants, a $500 award open to anyone under 40 from any disciplinary background. Additionally, the $1,000 Emerge Awards and the $500 Urge School Seed Grants are specifically geared toward students and teachers. There are no specifications for the types of projects that can be entered into the competition—anything from a vacant storefront art installation to an app that directs people to fresh food in their neighborhood will be considered. The Urge Awards are open to people’s ideas and creativity.
What is particularly special about many aspects of the award program, including the vague project design criteria, is that they encompass some of Moji’s most powerful ideas and practices.
Moore explained, “[Moji] would always make conscious efforts to break down the kinds of barriers and structures you find in [large institutional settings] where it’s very controlled. She would have kids from Red Hook critiquing Columbia graduate students on projects. She would do all of these things that were intentionally mixing things that didn’t mix, but should mix.”
Similarly, the grant winners will present their project ideas together, giving people the opportunity to collaborate and exchange with individuals they may not have otherwise interacted with. And this process won’t be reserved for older generations only.
“[Moji] always really believed that a big part of the problem with the way things are in the world is often because not everyone is taught how to make their world, how to make their environment and how to understand it, and that that process should start early,” said Moore.
To encourage young people to take part in the competition, the Emerge Awards are reserved for recent graduates of universities where Moji studied and taught and the Urge School Seed Grants are available to teachers and/or students doing projects in New York City. Both grants are intended to engage a younger audience and involve them in designing their city.
By giving individuals the tools to actualize creative solutions that improve the environments around them, Moji’s legacy continues to have a powerful and lasting impact. Thanks to 67 donors, including 44 New Yorkers and 23 out of towners, the Urban URGe Awards have been entirely fundraised. But the Urban Urge Awards team welcomes your application! The registration deadline for the competition is June 15th and projects are due by July 15th. Best of luck in this amazing competition!