One of the richest purses in architecture is the Latrobe Prize, $100,000 awarded every other year in honor of the United States’ founding father of architecture, Benjamin Latrobe.

This year’s prize, officially announced this week, goes to Princeton’s Center for Architecture, Urbanism and Infrastructure to fund a project with the ambitious goal of transforming the Upper Bay of the New York Harbor into a Central Park of the 21st century.

Guy Nordenson, professor of architecture, is the principal investigator on the project. “Guy has been investigating the interplay between architecture and engineering for a long time,” co-investigator James Smith told EQN.

Smith, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton, said that his role in the project is to assess the hazards of restructuring the area into a grand public space. “It is a complex ecosystem that has been dramatically altered for several hundred years by human activities,” he said. “Restructuring it will require a great deal of sensitivity.”

As an investigator in the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research Program, Smith has been wrestling with big hydrologic issues in Baltimore that have direct relevance to the Latrobe project. Both projects, he said, address the question of how to create a sustainable environment in a highly urban area.

Smith’s work in small-particulate detection also bears on the project. As part of MIRTHE, the new NSF-funded engineering center at Princeton that promises to revolutionize sensor technology, he is working with other researchers to build a new generation of environmental sensors. “Fine particulate matter is one of the major health issues in New Jersey and New York,” Smith said.

That’s the beginning of interesting research from Smith. He has just coauthored a marvelously counter-intuitive research paper with graduate student Alexandros Ntelekos on how the urban environment alters the nature of thunderstorms. You can find that paper here