Architecture School Launches Global Network
Special from The Record
Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) has long been known for its global initiatives. According to Dean Mark Wigley, one of the “utilities” that keeps the school running, besides water and power, is travel—“the ability to move people from place to place without resistance,” says Wigley. Already, nearly every student participates in at least one studio (an intensive design workshop) overseas. Many are in China, where half the world’s buildings are being built, and where cities are growing from 1 million to 10 million people seemingly overnight.
“It’s impossible to participate in that kind of explosive growth while sitting in New York,” Wigley says. “These cities are laboratories, and we have to be in the laboratories, with all the gaps in our understanding, and learn from their experiments.” And his students understand that. “They would rather the school give them tomorrow’s questions than today’s answers,” says the New Zealand-born Wigley, speaking in his office on the fourth floor of Avery Hall.
The feeling has led to perhaps the boldest initiative of Wigley’s tenure: the establishment of studio spaces affiliated with the architecture school in Beijing, Rio de Janeiro and Amman, with outposts planned for Mumbai, Moscow and other urban centers. Wigley dubbed the program “Studio-X.”
“‘Studio’ means empty room. ‘X’ means that we don’t know what’s going to happen in that room,” he says, adding, “If we knew, we wouldn’t need the space.”
To demonstrate what he has in mind, Wigley chose Manhattan for the first Studio-X. Occupying part of the 16th floor of 180 Varick St. (a building teeming with architecture firms), it has furniture that folds and rolls, allowing for a variety of uses. In the daytime, the space is employed by faculty members associated with the experimental research labs at GSAPP. At night, programs organized by Studio-X curator Gavin Browning take over. One is a monthly competition, called Spontaneous Architecture, which is based on current events. (In January, the subject was institutional collapse in Haiti.) Anyone can enter; the entries are showcased and the winners announced at Studio-X on the last Tuesday of every month. Artist Karen Finley has been to Studio-X for four events, including a discussion of her Holocaust memorial in Austria.
Soon after the school opened Studio-X in Manhattan, it launched the Beijing branch in a restored building near the city center. “We always choose downtown buildings,” Wigley says. “They have to be places people will want to go at night.”
The space contains what Wigley hopes will become the default Studio-X furniture: ping pong tables. “They’re perfect for gathering groups of eight for meetings,” he says. “And when you’re done, you can work off the stress with a game.”
Last year, another Studio-X debuted as part of Columbia’s global center in Amman, and Wigley is working with the city of Rio de Janeiro to open an outpost there. He pictures having “people working in the favelas in Brazil in direct dialogue with the people working in East Amman” through electronic links between the studios.
Wigley’s goal is for Studio-X to become a kind of global network that helps cities grow and helps architecture students learn. After Michelle Fornabai, an artist and architect, installed ink drawings on polyester film in both the New York and Beijing spaces, Wigley used Skype technology to lead a panel discussion among participants in the two cities. “What we do,” he concludes, “must be based on the deep conviction that those parts of the world that are changing the most have the most to teach us.”
—by Fred A. Bernstein