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KAZYS VARNELIS – NEW PARADIGMS IN THE UNIVERSITY: RESEARCH AT THE NETLAB AND STUDIO-X

Today I am going to talk about education in architecture and, in particular, the Studio-X initiative at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). Created by Dean Mark Wigley, this initiative serves as a model for both globalization in education as well as the relationship between architecture and research.

Wigley calls for educating “the expanded architect,” challenging students to think outside of the bounds of what conventionally is possible in architecture, to use the radical thinking developed in architectural education in other spheres, even those quite removed from the built domain. In the second half of this talk I will discuss an example of how the expanded architect might function in terms of my own practice, the Network Architecture Lab. The global context is key for Wigley, who argues that “if we do not think about the future in and with all the transformative regions of the world, then we are not thinking about the future.” For Wigley, the huge geopolitical changes going on worldwide—globalization, the rise of China, the end of the Soviet Union, the development of Brazil, India, and so on—are not just political and economic transformations but also produce changes in both thought and architecture. In American universities, there have been fundamental changes as well. In the 1960s, virtually all the faculty and students in Columbia’s architecture program were white American males. Now American students and faculty are much more diverse as students from across the world come to study here. Consequently, addressing global changes has become a matter of greater urgency and Wigley proposes that instead of serving as a colonial enterprise with satellite campuses worldwide, the university can expand beyond its local condition to become a platform for establishing systems of cooperation.

Studio-X

Wigley’s approach to this is the development of the Studio-X program (“X” standing for experimental). The Studio-X global network is composed of nodes located in megacities, with facilities in New York, Beijing, Tokyo, Amman, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, and Johannesburg. Each individual node is not a traditional classroom or studio venue, but may rather be ascribed to a global interface, a gallery, a library, a lecture space, a meeting room, an office, or a coffee bar. In various ways these elements combine to form each Studio-X node which in turn becomes a place for developing creative approaches to solve the most pressing problems of urban transformation. In theory, at least, each of the nodes becomes equally important and they all become centers of activity. Unlike say, New York University’s Global Programs, it is not meant to export leadership, education and research around the globe or to provide a place for study-abroad programs, but rather to understand that as much as Columbia has a great deal to offer, it also has a great deal to learn. The university advances as a learning institution as it expands into this network.

These images are of the global prototype Studio-X in the SoHo district of New York. It is located in 180 Varick Street, a building that is itself a kind of incubator for some of the most advanced architectural thought in the country—2 X 4 Design, Michael Sorkin, OMA, Toshiko Mori and other practices are located in the building. Studio-X is rather inconvenient to get to from the university’s campus, being located forty minutes away, and it is expressly not a place in which to teach or hold reviews. Rather, it is a place in which faculty work with students on research projects is conducted and, like every Studio-X node, has a busy schedule of events, lectures, and exhibitions. For Wigley, employing students to do research at Studio-X is a way of ensuring that they expand their knowledge, getting hands-on experience and learning about design outside of the school without being taken advantage of as unpaid interns in commercial offices. Where events, lectures, and exhibitions within the university typically appeal to students, those at Studio-X are for graduates who work in the many firms in SoHo, Chelsea, or otherwise nearby as well as a broader public audience. To accommodate these tasks, Studio-X is set up as an endlessly reconfigurable space with easily demountable desks.

If the New York Studio-X has been a successful prototype, expanding beyond that location was Wigley’s next step. Let’s look at some of these nodes, starting with Studio-X-Beijing. Columbia has many reasons to be in Beijing, with China growing exponentially and a number of faculty members already working there. For example, in 2009 Steven Holl completed his “Linked Hybrid”, a Beijing complex that addresses the massive growth, rapid change, and the opening up of the country. Given the crowding in Beijing, it’s appropriate that Studio-X-Beijing is small and seemingly hidden away, located in a factory building in a new art zone near the historical center of the city. Although I mentioned that Studio-X facilities do not host study-abroad programs where students spend a semester or a year in a foreign country, Columbia does send visiting studios to the Studio-Xs for a week at a time, as part of a scholarship program in which every student who attends GSAPP is reimbursed for travel abroad with one studio during their final year of education. Thus, a number of studios have already visited Studio-X Beijing, even as it has held competitions, symposia, exhibits, events, all attracting hundreds of local people.

Studio-X-Rio is in an historic townhouse in the city center. It offers another set of conversations and events that revolve around Latin America and an expertise in emerging creativity from around the globe. Studio-X-Rio also allows us to glimpse at how these centers might work financially, by approaching business leaders interested in bringing creative approaches to Rio from the perspective of digital and network technology. Although digital and network technology is explicitly the focus of the Studio-X program as a whole, the key location for it is Rio, since that is what the local condition calls for and produces funding for.

The Amman, Jordan facility is not a Studio-X but rather a “lab,” considered part of the network, but smaller than a typical facility, a mini Studio-X, if you will. The Amman lab is the only one that functions within another larger Columbia University center, being opened within the Columbia University Middle East Research Center in March 2009. In contrast to Rio, the focus of the Amman lab is historic preservation. So for example, the staff might undertake the exploration of some ruins and how one might preserve them in tandem with the historic preservation faculty. Beyond the focus on historic preservation, there have also been architecture design studios visiting the downtown, urban planning studios in poor neighborhoods and other activities held there.

These three examples of Studio-X nodes give a general overview of how the global network functions, but essential to understanding it are the labs that the school has built. Again, these operate outside of the traditional curriculum to conduct research that pushes the bounds of what architecture is. One of the oldest and most well-known labs is the “Spatial Information Design Lab” (SIDL) run by Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams. This lab specializes in applying the architect’s spatial expertise towards geographic and cartographic issues, tackling complex problems through visualization. The most well-known of their projects is “Million Dollar Blocks,” done in collaboration with the Justice Mapping Center. In this project the SIDL argues that reducing crime by focusing on the areas with the highest crime statistics can be a misguided approach. Instead, they conclude that it is important to focus on the neighborhoods that prisoners come from, as that is where crime begins. So they look at the addresses that felons come from and identify city blocks in which the government spends more than a million dollars per year to house residents. The resulting amp allows the government and private institutions to rethink where prevention efforts should be targeted.

Living Architecture Lab, run by David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang specializes in responsive architecture. The lab’s premise is to develop architecture that senses and responds to the world. For example, in South Korea they created Living Light, a pavilion with skin that glows and blinks in response to the local air quality. Together with the SIDL, they used air pollution sensors to track what the impact was on air quality in the city before and after restrictions were put in to limit pollution for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Although the Living Architecture Lab takes on big issues, they also understand the virtues of small scale and published a set of books on flash projects to explore particular projects in architecture done for under a thousand dollars, which in the US is not a lot of money. 

The Network Architecture Lab

For the last section of the lecture, I wanted to focus on my lab, the Network Architecture Lab, founded in 2006. The lab’s premise is that the impact of digital, networking technology needs to be investigated carefully, even skeptically. Our sense of space has transformed completely and virtually every facet of our lives, from politics to friendship to how we watch movies to how we think of sex has been subject to transformation. I’m agnostic, if you will, in regard to technology and, indeed skeptical of the impact all of this is having on our lives.

The Network Architecture Lab’s focus is largely on invisible architecture, on the transformation that has left no visible traces on the city around us. The transformation involves what media theorist Paul Dourish calls “Hertzian Space,” the spatial dimension of the electromagnetic spectrum produced by our devices, e.g. the space of radio waves, the space of wireless technology, and even the maps traced by hidden network cables.

Let’s take a look at a series of projects that we have done. First, take the Infrastructural City, a book that I edited and that the lab designed and produced maps for in 2008. This book is the culmination of years of research into Los Angeles, the city that epitomized the big infrastructure of the modern era, existing only because of aqueducts that bring the water from hundreds of kilometers away as well as the over eight hundred kilometers of freeways within it. The city exists because of electric lines that bring it power all the way from both Nevada and Washington State. This is a city that does not naturally exist, it is a city that is on a massive life support mechanism. And yet, in a way, every city is like that. Vilnius, after all, faces similar challenges, such as having to rely on gas from overseas. In the book, I hypothesize that you cannot build that kind of infrastructure anymore in a developed country. There is a mass of political impasse that prevents it. Rich or poor, people don’t want big infrastructure projects in their yards. Any time a big project is proposed, incredible road blocks are set up against it . Politically speaking, this is a major problem for us as a country. But what’s interesting is that some planners understand this condition and incorporate it into their work. In Los Angeles, planners realized that if they add another lane to an existing freeway that will cost a billion dollars a mile. In seven years, however, the freeway will clog as badly as it had clogged before the lane was added. So instead, they incorporate the traffic jam into their strategy, understanding that people generally will not live more than 45 minutes away from where they work. If the jam means it’s harder to go the extra distance, then people move or get new jobs. So there is a kind of feedback effect where the jam itself is no longer seen as a problem to solve but rather as a condition that can be incorporated in the planning process. As we look at the city we see more of these kind of feedback effects in the development of smart infrastructures, that is traditional infrastructure augmented with sensors and computers.

Another project we did was a book called “Networked Publics,” initially begun at the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California (University of Southern California) and finished at Columbia. I was hired at the Center for a year, right before I came to Columbia, to run a research group looking at sociological and cultural aspects of what today’s technology was bringing us. Moreover, as we developed the book, we augmented it with a series of panels on the book’s topics at Studio-X, working with Domus magazine to create a hybrid lecture with audience interacting with us using live streams. People in places like Helsinki, Chicago, Washington D.C., Columbia, and Australia watched it and responded using Twitter. In turn, the response was fed back into the event in the form of questions that the panelists responded to. After the panels, we asked people throughout the world to respond with unsolicited pieces which we then gathered together, reviewed and worked with Domus magazine, which published them on their website. So this became a kind of feedback effect in which we tried to incorporate as many ideas as we could.

At times we do actually produce more familiar designs on an urban scale. In 2010, we competed in a worldwide competition to redesign Long Island, New York. Our proposal was that if you want to redesign Long Island, you need to think about it in terms of infrastructure, ecology and networks, and to undo some very commonly held ideas about what you must do with urban planning. First of all, we noticed that Long Island still gets its water from an aquifer underneath it. We decided that since the aquifer was currently being polluted out of existence and that getting water from elsewhere was prohibitively expensive, we’d have to decide which part of the aquifer to keep and figure out a way to rapidly depopulate the land above it. We also found out that some areas of Long Island are thriving and others not. Many of the areas that are not doing well are above the aquifer. So we proposed that rather than trying to revive these communities, we should abandon them through tax incentives and regional planning in favor of densifying some of the older suburbs close to the city that are now increasingly being populated by recent immigrants. These suburbs are already places to which Indian, Portuguese, and Spanish immigrants move. We decided on a few key overall moves. First, we suggested that within these suburbs, we could also mimic that strategy of selective depopulation that we introduced on the island-wide scale. We’d turn the depopulated parts into parks while densifying the centers. We also proposed that the ethnic identity of the suburbs be celebrated so that the centers would become filled with radical typologies from immigrant culture, such as, for example a mini driving golf courses on top of a parking garages. This seems odd to us, but if you are in a Korean neighborhood in Korea or in the United States, it is absolutely normal. In other words, we set out to promote ethnic diversity across the territory, not across an individual community, thus encouraging these neighborhoods to be greater communities while also serving as destinations for dining, shopping, and entertainment.

Finally, I’ll briefly mention a project we took on at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. We were invited to participate in “The Last Newspaper” exhibit, a show in which artists looked at the fate of the newspaper. My collaborator Joseph Grima and I decided to focus on how newspapers’ readership is changing. We are increasingly reading newspapers on devices—iPads, smart phones, and so on—and we’re getting very targeted ideas of the news, algorithms ensure that we see only things we want to read. Moreover, news is becoming something very private. In the past, people would read newspapers in public, thus performatively announcing the importance of being an informed citizen. So we sought to find ways to revive the newspaper. Joseph had noticed how in China people read newspapers posted on walls outside. I also remembered from my childhood in Chicago. We found that newspapers were often hung in public on walls outside newspaper offices, so that people could read them. In the 19th century, with the spread of mass literacy and cheap paper, cities like New York and Paris were filled with literature, filled with words. So we imagined a newspaper that could be hung in public and established a newspaper office in the gallery, bringing staff, an office, even a typewriter on which the visitors to the show were asked to write letters to the editor. I decided that we really needed to think not of a new newspaper each week, but a new section each week, edited by a different group to reflect on the role of the newspaper in shaping architecture and urbanism. Taking some examples, Netlab produced the “City” section to look at the way the New York Times operated in New York City during the blackout in 1977, how they interacted with the public and continued to be published and what its effects were. The concept was to work with the graphic designer Neil Donnelly to imagine that this paper wouldn’t just be read, but would also be hung in public. Each one of these is an individual issue, with a different graphic layout and is designed to be read on the wall. We imagined we’d post this all over New York City, although it turned out that didn’t happen. We found out, after starting the project, that it was actually illegal to do that, except on temporary walls surrounding construction sites. The problem there is that the posters hung on those walls are done with the permission of the building contractor, which often were mafia-controlled. So, the options seemed to be that we could have our knee caps broken by the mafia or fined 35,000 dollars per incident. We applied to the Metropolitan Transit Authority to have it hung on various job sites they had and eventually we made it through the paperwork, but by then it was November and it was too cold. We also underestimated how long it would take to hang these things, because it’s actually quite hard to hang them. In the end we reflected on how the difficulty of posting such things changes the relationship of public documents and the city.

The point of the New City Reader was that we wanted to investigate the interaction of media, the city, and architecture. After all, the buildings by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and so forth are being built partly to appear in the news, and partly to get the builder’s name in the news. So newspapers and architecture are very tied together. Newspapers are players within the city. They play a key role in the urban realm. And, of course, with newspapers being greatly impacted by new media, we were interested in how these things would work together.

This talk has been a brief overview of the Studio-X and labs initiatives at Columbia. Together I hope that this provides an understanding of how the education of the expanded architect might progress and how GSAPP is experimenting with new models of education and research.

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