How the SOM Foundation is Cultivating the Next Generation of Design Leaders

Executive Director Iker Gil discusses the importance of mentorship and financial support for young designers.

Established by SOM in 1979 to support emerging designers, the SOM Foundation is an independent nonprofit organization that has provided more than $3 million in fellowships to design students and faculty, as well as mentorship and networking opportunities. Today, the foundation administers five annual awards, which support rigorous interdisciplinary research across the globe.

With the Research Prize, European Research Prize, and Robert L. Wesley Award application period opening this month, we sat down with Executive Director Iker Gil, an architect, curator, and educator, to talk about the foundation’s evolution, impact, and ambitions to bring new ideas and expand equity in the design profession.

How did you first connect with SOM and the SOM Foundation?

Iker Gil: I studied at the Barcelona School of Architecture and, for the 2002–2003 academic year, I received a scholarship from the Illinois Institute of Technology to study architecture in Chicago. In 2005, I came back to pursue my master’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois Chicago. I was always very interested in the relationship between architecture and the city, from large-scale projects to urban policies, and upon graduation I applied to work at SOM in the urban design and planning studio. I was there for two and a half years before starting my own practice in 2009–called MAS Studio–and the nonprofit MAS Context. I was very interested in finding ways to contribute as a designer and also in creating a platform to support innovative thinking about communities and the built environment.

Ten years later, I was approached by SOM Partner Scott Duncan, co-chair of the SOM Foundation, about taking on the role of executive director. I was already aware of the work of the SOM Foundation and had even applied to their awards program in the past. I was excited by its history and potential to make an impact for designers and their work.

SOM Foundation Executive Director Iker Gil. © Julie Michiels

In addition to your role at the SOM Foundation, you are a practicing architect, curator, and publisher. These positions address the profession of architecture and the generation of new ideas in different ways. What impact is the SOM Foundation able to make outside of the bounds of a traditional practice?

The SOM Foundation has an incredible legacy, having supported more than 325 fellows by providing economic and institutional support to students and practitioners at the early stages of their careers. Marion Weiss, Werner Sobek, Santiago Calatrava, Joshua Ramus, Lindsey Wikstrom, Felecia Davis, and Toni L. Griffin are just a few of the fellows who have gone on to make a significant impact in the design profession. The foundation aims to give emerging designers the time and the resources to explore new ideas and expand their networks, and in doing so, to advance the profession as a whole.

La Muralla Roja, shared courtyard, designed by Ricardo Bofill and photographed by 2016 fellow Lindsey Wikstrom.

How has the SOM Foundation evolved over time?

Originally, the award was essentially a fellowship to travel around the world and conduct research on topics that fellows were interested in. Over the years, the SOM Foundation has established new awards, focusing on different disciplines. Since 2018, the awards have been structured around a key topic chosen by the foundation, which serves as a guiding theme for fellows to develop their interdisciplinary research and to engage with these topics in different and complementary ways.

Awaji Yumebutai, Awaji, Hyōgo, photographed by 2016 fellow Samantha Eng.

What are some of the recent topics? How did you select them?

The SOM Foundation’s board of directors defines these topics through discussions throughout the year. We ask ourselves: What are the most important issues facing the built environment today? What ideas do we see emerging in academia? What innovations are in development that will change our industry?

The first topics were “Humanizing High Density,” which addressed the interconnected challenges of urban population growth, sustainability, and human comfort, and “Shrinking our Agricultural Footprint,” which focused on solutions for sustainable food production through policies, actions, and plans. It’s always a delight to see how these topics become enriched with geographic and cultural specificity—one project on the latter topic looked at the relationship between Mexico City and the Mezquital Valley, and how the use of water and waste impacts agriculture.

Illustration of industrial effluents, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and other components present in urban soil, by 2019 fellow Seth Denizen.

Subsequent topics have ranged from sustainable building materials to social justice and equity in the built environment. The topic for the 2022–2023 academic year was “Shaping Our World Through Air,” informed by the World Health Organization report that analyzed the diminishing quality of air in cities around the world. We have seen the growing impact of poor air quality as a universal concern, with smoke from fires traveling thousands of miles, long-lasting heat waves, and industrial pollution. 

The 2023–2024 topic is “Adapting Housing Strategies to Respond to New Realities.” The issues are well documented—housing costs are continuing to escalate, and adequate housing remains inaccessible for far too many people. We want applicants to explore affordable, equitable, and innovative modes of multifamily housing that will respond to both current and future needs. We need to think and build in a smart and sustainable way, update existing housing developments, and foster the adaptive reuse of existing buildings to create thriving communities and healthy neighborhoods. 

Sensing ecology and contamination map of Braddock and North Braddock, 2022. © Keyi Chai, Ruoyu Li, Jonathan Pett, and Xiao Xu, for 2022 fellow Nida Rehman

What kind of support does the SOM Foundation give to students and professors? 

We offer five annual awards that support undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty around the world: the Research Prize, the European Research Prize, the Structural Engineering Fellowship, the China Fellowship, and the Robert L. Wesley Award. In addition to supporting—and in many cases enabling—that research, the fellowships bring visibility that can help this research grow and deepen over time. By structuring the awards around a theme, we’re also creating a cohort of fellows who are sharing knowledge and expertise. Fundamental to the SOM Foundation’s ethos is the idea that, by bringing diverse voices into the process, we can produce much more inclusive and thoughtful work.

Knitted Base Model. Knitted by Ian Danner, knitted by Ian Danner and photographed by 2021 fellow Felecia Davis.

The Robert L. Wesley Award is the SOM Foundation’s newest award, created to contribute to a more equitable profession. How does it achieve this?

Along with the SOM Foundation board members, I am continuously asking students, recent graduates, and practitioners about their time in school—what their challenges were, where they could have used more support, and what they wanted to accomplish that they didn’t have the resources to do. We identified that BIPOC students in particular have faced financial challenges in the latter half of their undergraduate degree programs—scholarships ran out as they moved to their sophomore and junior years, and they needed to find outside funding or other sources of income to continue their education. 

To address this issue, the SOM Foundation created an award in 2020 that provides unrestricted funds—$10,000 and a mentorship program—for three undergraduate BIPOC students every year, to help them focus on their academic work and develop relationships with practitioners who have walked a similar path. We bring in mentors from around the country to meet with the fellows individually and, five times a year, convene in a group setting. The mentors guide the fellows in their interests and help them plan for their next phase, whether they’re enrolling in a graduate program, seeking to join an existing firm, or working to launch their own practice.

We named the award after Robert L. Wesley, a remarkable architect who is passionate about education and was the first Black partner at SOM. He led educational initiatives around Chicago and contributed to major civic projects including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Center, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the Millennium Park Master Plan. We are very lucky to have Robert, who retired in 2001, involved as a juror and mentor for this award.

"Dia: Beacon Artist Residency,” gallery. © 2022 fellow Gabriela Robles-Muñoz and Aaron Koopal
“A Day in Johannesburg,” drawn by 2021 fellow Xiluva Mbungela.

How do you bring visibility to the research and how does that impact the profession more broadly?

We do it in several ways. We post the fellows’ final reports on our website, with dedicated pages for each project. This enables us to share the work with a broad network of practitioners and amplify the impact of the research. In many cases, this support has helped fellows develop a publication or a public program, such as a lecture or panel discussion, and we also present a selection of the work at large events, including the AIA Conference on Architecture, when possible.

Our relationship with the fellows continues beyond the awards. For example, we invited 2011 fellow Brandon Clifford to participate in an event we organized in collaboration with the University of Stuttgart last year that focused on materiality. He shared how his research has grown and evolved at the practice he co-founded, Matter Design, and through his work as an Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Francesco Borromini, Rome Italy, 1642–60, photographed by 2011 fellow Brandon Clifford.
Church of St. Georg, Nördlingen Germany, photographed by 2011 fellow Brandon Clifford.

Another example is Wil Srubar, who won the 2006 Structural Engineering Fellowship to study more than 80 structures during a 70-day trip across Europe and the Middle East. He is continuing his work today as the director of the Living Materials Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder. We recently invited him to serve as a juror for the Structural Engineering Fellowship. By inviting past fellows to serve on juries every year, we help to keep them engaged with the next generation of designers.

Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Luxor, Egypt, photographed by 2006 fellow Wil Srubar.

What kind of impact do you hope to make on the SOM Foundation through your leadership?

Two goals come to mind. When I joined in 2019, one priority was to celebrate the remarkable work our fellows had produced over the decades. We organized our archive and created a new website, where we have published all the work of our fellows as well as other key initiatives from the history of the foundation, such as the Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism. These efforts make every fellow’s work visible to any researcher or designer—helping to extend the threads of inquiry and enabling their ideas to resonate with other students and faculty over time. 

The second part is to continue to build a nurturing network of fellows—to connect past and current fellows, help promote their current work, and establish relationships between individuals and institutions. When we share our mission and our work with like-minded organizations and people, that ultimately helps create new opportunities for our fellows.


The application periods for the SOM Foundation’s Research Prize, European Research Prize, and Robert L. Wesley Award have opened. Explore the 2023–2024 topic: “Adapting Housing Strategies to Respond to New Realities”