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Introduction to Architecture 2020

Thomas de Monchaux  (, Joshua Jordan (,
Bika Rebek (,  Josh Uhl (

Teaching Assistants/Mentors: 
Munise Aksoy (,  Joud Hasan Irshaid Al Shdaifat (, 
Gizem Karagoz (, Charlotte Ziye Yu (

The Introduction to Architecture program introduces its students to fundamental practices and conceptual principles of architectural design. To both technical and critical tools. To thinking-by-making, and to making-by-thinking. This Summer, we access architecture through the idea of access itself: an entrance and equitable intersection; a means of approach; an onset and arrival; an opening.

While we are not physically accessing the campus of Columbia University and the city of New York together, we are approaching them by critically analyzing and redesigning a problematic spatial, social, and historical boundary between the campus and the city—right behind Avery Hall and Fayerweather Hall, within and below which are located the studios, labs, library, and other spaces of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). 

Our conceptual site is defined by the idea of a “legacy platform”, which in the world of contemporary technology describes an existing structure or system of hardware or software that new designs are required to occupy, contend with, and transform. These platforms are our preoccupations. How do you turn something into something else? How can making be remaking? What do we do with the defaults, biases, and routines that are "built in" to our inherited built environments?

Our spatial site is defined by an actual platform: the 1966 platform over Amsterdam Avenue between Avery Hall and Jerome Greene Hall, designed and built during the construction of the Columbia Law School Building. This bridge between west and east campus was a barrier between the campus and the city, between Columbia and Morningside Heights—segregating students and citizens and reflecting historical injustices and crises of race, class, and more, mapped onto a literal urban cross-section. 

Platforming was a characteristic of mid-twentieth-century so-called 'urban renewal' projects that often had racist and classist consequences, nominally separating vehicular and pedestrian traffic, but also separating different populations. The Amsterdam Avenue platform was a 1960s continuation, by architects Harrison & Abramowitz, of the plinth or podium onto which Columbia’s 1890s architects, McKim, Meade, and White, raised the campus above the ground level of the surrounding city blocks—a combination of natural and artificial geography that means that most of the “ground” on campus is a false ground. What seems to be underground on campus is aboveground in the city. In the case of GSAPP, the seeming ground is the roof of libraries, auditoriums, and labs below. The plinth also means that—despite McKim, Meade, and White’s client, university president Seth Low, stating that, Columbia, “should be built under city conditions and under metropolitan conditions”—the campus architecturally turns inward, away from its urban context, with the classically rusticated base levels of perimeter buildings evoking, from sidewalk level,  a fortified wall. 

The 1960s eastward expansion of Columbia that prompted the construction of the 1966 platform—a “horizontal wall”—reached a crisis with a 1968 proposal to construct a university gymnasium on public land in Morningside Park—one block east of our site, along the historical boundary between the Manhattan neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and Harlem. Criticism around access to this proposed building by the local community was a catalyst to the significant student protests and occupations that took place at Columbia University in 1968.

We will be imaginatively replacing this platform with an extended new collective condition between 116th and 118th Streets that bridges both in plan and cross-section between campus and city grade. And that emphasizes approachability, connectivity, interactivity, porosity—and above all, access. On this partially pedestrianized site (six effective traffic lanes reduced to two) we will develop a micro-urbanism and an urban village to which each student contributes a skinny-townhouse-scaled “slice”; and in which each student’s design is content-aware and context-aware of its neighbors. A neighborliness and a lively density of inhabitation that results from this tight site and shared mission will provide a sense of Manhattanism and the Columbia/GSAPP campus that would currently be otherwise unavailable. 

Operating Principles 
The operating principles and thematic content of the 2020 Introduction to Architecture studio are 1. the collage, 2. the found object, and 3. the connection between individual and collective operation and occupation. Operations of adapting, transforming, translating, repurposing, displacing, remaking, remixing, mashing-up, and “kit-bashing” will be encouraged in different media and at different scales.

To cultivate community and studio culture across geographical displacement, all four sections of our studio will follow the same sequence of four assignments over the first four weeks, with the fifth week constituting a synthetic final design assignment in which the architecturally-scaled structures developed and sited by each student during the fourth week are adapted to a diverse variety of programs and collective awareness. Each assignment will emphasize complementary tools and techniques, and will result in a sequence of deliverables that become the “found object” or literal/conceptual “kit of parts” with which the subsequent assignment begins. 

Students will be brought together by a range of communication tools, from the now-familiar “Zoom” meetings to a shared occupation of virtual environments—including, in the final assignment, occupying a digital model of the environment designed by the students themselves: the collective condition that is the consequence of individual designs. Fun and performative exercises—in which, for example, one of our instructors becomes a student-steered “human avatar” to photograph the site—will catalyze the sense of community and creativity at the heart of the Introduction to Architecture program.

Assignment Sequence
Assignment 1 - Handshake: Your Street, Your Lens / observing + collaging
, introduces themes of close observation, photographic documentation, and collage, in which students create photographs of their immediate domestic landscape/streetscape settings, collect associated/thematized photographs online, and—again by collage—adapt elements of iconic architectural diagrams to explore narrative and thematic connections between these images: the first set an objective and conscious “above-ground” geography, the second a subjective and unconscious “underground” psycho-geography. 

Assignment 2 - Common Ground / site analysis, construction, mapping,  will culminate in an “epic section” of each student’s assigned “slice” as the base drawing for a “site analysis mapping”. The graphic elements and thematic/historic approaches to the site analysis mapping will be initially sourced from the “found object” of the collage developed by each student in Assignment 1, adapted to interpreting the site’s rich history and urban interface. The source for this epic section will be a group site model developed in quarters by each section, to a deliberately variable degree of resolution subject to available documentation and interest in specific details as case studies. Development of this site model will also constitute training in Rhino and the skill tree of representation and documentation necessary for subsequent work. 

Assignment 3 - Embodied Environment Machine / model-making, the body, and life-size 1-to-1 - will shift in scale from the urban to the human, and in substance from the digital/virtual to the physical/actual. Students will create an “embodied experience machine” sited on their own body, created by retailoring commonly available garments and materials as found objects. The conceptual found object will be the “site analysis mapping” from Assignment 2, in which students are asked how their embodied experience machine could modify some experience of their current domestic interior environment to recreate some perception experience of the site and so to, “bring the site to you.” 

Assignment 4 - Week 4: Assemblage / bringing it all together - will conceptually collage the found objects of Assignments 2 and 3, and effectively constitute the “first half” of the Final Assignment. Through the lively adaptive use of sophisticated mapping and modeling tools, students will combine the existing physical and digital assets that they have made, consolidating experiences of the body and the site. Formal and spatial conditions of students’ embodied experience machines — and their phenomenological effects — will be scanned and converted to architectural scale and installed onto their site model as developed in Assignment 2. Rather than starting from a massing diagram, students will be asked to take the geometries generated so far as found objects that can be scaled and manipulated to achieve spatial qualities. A preliminary Final Assignment brief will be introduced. 

Assignment 5 - The Bridge / a collective construction between campus and city - will continue the formal and spatial research developed in Assignment 4, by prompting each student to refine and adapt their structure in the service of a unique program that they propose — keyed to our larger theme of access: interaction between campus and city, individual and collective, domestic and urban, inside and outside, and more. In the spirit of the Siedlungs, Expos, and Biennials that have historically advanced architectural thinking—in which intense landscapes of repetition and variation create collective landscapes—the result will be a dense and lively urban village, a micro-collage-city,  in which each student will see their own work within their assigned slice, as well as their participation in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. 

A Note on Connection and Communication 
This semester presents a unique and timely opportunity to explore the potentials of online collaboration and design tools. More than just an exercise in technology, this studio seeks to weave together formats and subjects: group video conferences, collaborative exercise formats, and collectivized conceptual design projects. Analogous to the serendipitous culture of the physical design studio, there are certain ineffable qualities of design thinking that can only exist in the remote setting that we find ourselves in. To this end, we will introduce to students multiple online communication and work platforms, with the goal of being able to move fluently between them. This will include video conferencing systems such as Zoom, spatial virtual "rooms" like the VR-oriented Mozilla Hubs and existing institutional tools like Canvas—all to facilitate not just the distribution and delivery of work, but the creative design process itself.