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Fish-texting, Nairobi, and Wikipedia: Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation Looks to the Future

Since the economic downturn, there’s been no shortage of talk about the future of architecture. As projects continue to stall and firms keep slashing their payrolls, speculation about what the coming months might bring is widespread. There is one segment of the industry, however, where the future still looks bright. In the realm of architectural research, where decades and even centuries are the relevant units of time, excitement about what might be possible outweighs gloom about what isn’t. By working out new ways to address real-world issues through design, researchers hope to lay the foundation for an industry that remains vital and relevant in the long term.

Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation offered a glimpse into this world last week with an event featuring the directors of several of its experimental laboratories. A relatively new addition to GSAPP, the experimental lab program was created to promote collaboration between GSAPP, the larger university community, and the outside world. Because of this focus on multidisciplinary partnerships, while some of the work emerging from the labs is immediately recognizable as architecture, some might seem more at home in other settings (art galleries, NGOs, etc). Some labs focus primarily on applied research, others pure: according to the program’s website, “considerable emphasis is placed on the research findings but also the ongoing debates addressed by the research and the new forms of research these debates will provoke.”

Of the six labs represented at the event, the Avery Digital Fabrication Lab provided the cleanest model of applied architectural research. Visually, the work emerging from the lab fits perfectly with the organic/computational-hybrid aesthetic currently in vogue. But designing attractive objects is only one of its ambitions. The lab’s three areas of concentration, according to director Scott Marble, can be described as ‘designing design’ (“the process of design has become a complex workflow that has become a problem in and of itself”); ‘designing assembly’, involving material and technical explorations of manufacturing practices; and ‘designing industry’, or focusing on the profession-wide changes brought about by technological developments (“current boundaries between architects and engineers break down, which is a good thing.”)

While the Digital Fabrication Lab works to advance architectural practice, the Network Architecture Lab concerns itself with advancing discourse. Technology and culture have undergone massive transformations in the last few decades, said director Kazys Varnelis, and yet the last major theoretical breakthrough, post-modernism, is now more than a generation old. “Neither historians nor theorists are really coming up to the plate. What’s going on?” Varnelis attempts to take on the challenge via collaborative writing projects dealing with phenomena such as Twitter, Wikipedia, and life in Los Angeles.

The remaining groups fell somewhere in between in terms of their balance of architectural to multidisciplinary work and applied to pure research. At China Lab, formed a year ago in response to growing student interest in subject, Jeffrey Johnson and his students attempt to identify possible models for urbanization in the developing world by studying the unprecedented explosion of that nation’s cities. Speaking about the importance of finding collaborative methods for tackling issues raised by rapid urbanization, he discussed projects ranging from research on government programs such as the one-child policy to work with the architectural typology of the urban megablock. In these projects, Johnson said that “what’s important to us is, is this an exportable model? In many ways it’s sustainable, but in many ways it’s a negative solution.”

The Spatial Information Design Lab brings together teams of architects, statisticians, graphic designers and others to gather massive pools of information about important issues and then make the data accessible to various user groups through innovative designs. Director Laura Kurgan discussed work including the development of a series of information-rich maps intended to aid policy development in Nairobi; Architecture & Justice , an intensive exploration of New York’s prison population (which has been acquired by MoMA); and Terre Natale, a collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro focusing on global human migration.

Jeffrey Inaba of The Columbia Laboratory for Architectural Broadcasting, or C-Lab, which was founded in 2005, is interested in the ties between architecture, geopolitics, and communication. One of the lab’s major efforts is Volume magazine, which, according to its website , goes beyond “architecture’s definition of ‘making buildings’” and “reaches out for global views on designing environments, advocates broader attitudes to social structures, and reclaims the cultural and political significance of architecture.” Inaba also touched briefly on research into the effect of the war in Iraq on that country’s architecture, explorations of how the hedge fund boom affected New York real estate, and studies of philanthropy’s use as a political tool.

From the Living Architecture Lab, David Benjamin discussed his fun-but-serious approach to interactive architecture. He discussed developing social networks for buildings to share information gathered by sensors, designing underwater installations that monitor water quality and allow people to interact with fish via text messages, and creating reactive building components . The lab’s process, according to Benjamin, has four steps: hypothesize about cities, buildings, and cultures (“think big, but think specifically”); prototype and test; document the work to make it usable for others; and contribute in some way to the larger community.

Asked about the implications of their work for the profession as a whole, panelists offered differing visions. Inaba claimed that the experimental labs “demonstrate that the research is happening as a profession unto itself. If research was started in architecture as a thought that it would have paybacks for the profession, now it has validity unto itself.” Marble, on the other hand, said that by equipping young designers to find new and better ways to practice, the labs were in fact directly benefiting the profession. “The most important thing for us is that we encourage the students and teach them ways that when they come out and practice in a relatively conventional setting they look for ways to constantly transform it. In the last few years students are very entrepreneurial. They’re not at all looking to just fall into step.”

Image credit: Amphibious Architecture, by the Living Architecture Lab (David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang, directors), with xDesign Environmental Health Clinic at NYU (Natalie Jeremijenko, director). The project will be launched in September 2009 as part of “Situated Technologies: Toward the Sentient City” by the Architectural League of New York.

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