Course Syllabus


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AAD Summer Studio 2017        

Karla Rothstein, critic

with David Zhai and Zhida Wu


DEATH and the CITY:  Reimagining 21st Century Urban Life


Navigating contemporaneous positions on the Civic, the Sacred and the Profane, this studio will generate ideas about the future city, re-qualify infrastructural typologies, and radically reimagine the urban public domain.

Over the past two centuries, as society’s needs and technological capacities have evolved, New York City’s municipal services and systems have accrued in intertwined and ad hoc layers. 6,000 miles of roadways, 788 bridges and tunnels, a fleet of ferryboats, and diverse networks for information and resources of all definitions are threaded across, over and between the archipelago of the five boroughs. Amidst this infrastructural mélange, cemeteries comprise an aggregate gated area more than five times the size of Central Park. While providing advantageous ecological habitat, these vast yet intimate territories are largely sequestered from the streams of everyday life.

The studio will envision the city through strategic, hybridized co-existence and accountability for the future, to produce new occupational alliances and spatial innovation. We will design new public spaces, integrated into urban life, that recognize death and remembrance as part of essential civic and social infrastructure. Student teams will speculate on and design elegantly conceived structures across scales from object to building to city and back again. Transcending religious dogma and the absence of belief, projects will support vibrant collective urban life and intimate forms of contemplation. 


5 SCALES       At a time when debates pit ‘systems’ against ‘buildings’ and ‘space’ against ‘object,’ we will strategically engage all of the above, as essential constituents of the complexity the metropolis. Design proposals, produced in partnership, will encompass 5 interdependent scales:

  • a vessel or object to contain or embody the inorganic remains of a single individual
  • a building that offers civic-sanctuary
  • a system of accelerated decomposition and commemoration
  • an urban public landscape of celebration and contemplation
  • a collective urban imaginary of death and the city

Decisions will be informed by the argument of your project and produce consequences larger and more impactful than the sum of its multi-scaled parts.


5 SITES       Responding to and interpreting distinct civic and individual priorities of the 21st century, each team will engage and radically re-fashion one of the following existing infrastructural sites:

  • a bridge
  • a subway
  • the Citi-bike network
  • a pier / the urban littoral edge
  • an existing cemetery or urban park

Dissonance among proximal programs and apparent asymmetry of occupational intent will be calibrated to yield propositions that support vibrant civic relations and intimate exchange. Engaging in the politics of today, projects will serve as a catalyst for accommodating the mesmerizing civic alchemy of multiple, simultaneous truths.


DESIGN                     Design is an act of production with regenerative capacity. As architects, we engage our projects as instruments with which to re-qualify reality and to propagate change.

CONCEPT                 A concept facilitates focus and clarity. Students should be willing to mobilize skills and intellect to work outside of their comfort zone. Critical conceptual intent will frame exploration and purposeful invention.

THEORY                    Robust ideological arguments will build and clarify through engaged conversation and debate. Projects will formulate and test hypotheses on architecture’s role in shaping and remembering the future. The logics of your contentions and propositions should be meticulous, but not preconceived.

NOTATION              Ideas and potential will be explored iteratively through writing, drawings, digital and physical models. Graphic techniques shall be inventive and commensurate with your project’s critical aspirations. Manifestoes will evolve as the project emerges. These succinct articulations of intent will be rigorously tested and evaluated in dialogue with your developing architectural proposals.

MORTALITY            Mortality is registered in the reality of corporeal transience. Death occupies the margins of life and the city. Yet it also defines our mortal connection to the cycles of the organic world. At Columbia GSAPP DeathLAB we are critically re-imagining the city’s relationship with death, and through this work designing new forms of civic space. DeathLAB is an inter-disciplinary initiative directed by architects in close dialogue with environmental engineers, a philosopher / theologian, sociologists and sustainability experts. Supported by the Earth Institute, we are currently developing a process that transforms the biomass of the corpse into the energy that we literally embody. As an alternative to the excessive resource consumption of both casketed burial and cremation, this system engages the disposition of the body on its biological basis.

TEMPORALITY       Projects will engage time, duration and the cognitive difference between experience and reflection—identifying misalignments between the physics of palpable spatial and material presence and how we choose to remember, establish the value of absence, and commune with strangers. Innovative models of civic-sacred space and new modalities of remembrance will question the need for permanent repositories and epitaphs in the urban landscape.

ETHOS                      The Summer Studio will be intense and prolific. Students should possess a willingness to work incredibly hard, take calculated risks, and be comfortable with ethical disobedience to outdated cultural practices. Respect for your peers is crucial to the studio dynamic, and active dialogue will inspire effective exploration. Our best work emerges when we intensively engage content and uncover possibility – you should take equal pleasure in intense critical investigation and beautiful, analytically creative production of all definitions.


SCHEDULE               On Thursday, 01.June we will meet in 300 Avery. Please bring your portfolios and any other material that you’d like to share as a means with which to introduce yourself to the group.

Beginning Monday 05 June we will have pin-ups to initiate each week of the semester.

Midterm: Thursday, 06 July

Final: Wednesday, 02 August



Stan Allen, “Mapping the Unmappable: On Notation” in Practice: Architecture, Technique and Representation. London, 2009

Kate Asher, The Works: Anatomy of a City. New York, 2005

James Corner, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Theory. Princeton, 1999

James Corner, “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention” in in Mappings, ed Denis Cosgrove. London, 1999, 214-252.

Greg Dickinson, Carole Blair eds. Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials. Tuscaloossa, 2010

Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists. Oxford, 2012

Eric Kester, “Making Light of Death: At Columbia’s DeathLAB, The Search for a Cleaner, Smarter Alternative to Burial is a Deeply Serious Matter,” Columbia Magazine, New York, 2016

Philip Kitcher, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism. New Haven, 2014

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Ontario, 2014

Karla Rothstein, “Reconfiguring Urban Spaces of Disposal, Sanctuary and Remembrance,” in Our Changing Journey to the End: Reshaping Death, Dying, and Grief in America, Vol. I: Trends in How and Where We Die and Grieve. Santa Barbara, 2013

Mark C. Taylor, After God (Religion and Postmodernism). Chicago, 2007

Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Project, “Nones” on the Rise, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.



Kartik Chandran, Environmental Engineer, MacArthur Fellow for sustainable resource recovery

Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, Senior Data Visualization and GIS Analyst at Columbia University’s Center for Spatial Research

Amy Cunningham, Death Educator, NYC’s ‘eco friendly’ Funeral Director


Karla Rothstein is a practicing architect and Associate Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. She is the founder and director of Columbia’s trans-disciplinary DeathLAB and a member of the Columbia University Seminar on Death. Rothstein’s areas of inquiry and teaching weave intimate spaces of urban life, death and memory with intersections of social justice, the environment, and civic infrastructure.

Rothstein is also Design Director at LATENT Productions, the architecture, research, and development firm she co-founded with Salvatore Perry. In this role, she has gained a deep understanding of the political and practical aspects of realizing built work, and the importance of the societal and cultural levers that promote positive change within communities. LATENT Productions is currently re-vivifying a 240,000 SF former cotton spinning mill campus on 9-acres in the northern Berkshires, building 25 units of affordable housing for home ownership in Brownsville Brooklyn, and a meandering oasis for a private client.

Since 2015, Rothstein’s research with co-PI Kartik Chandran, has been supported by the Earth Institute’s Cross Cutting Initiative. In 2016, LATENT Productions and DeathLAB were awarded first place in the international Future Cemetery competition, and DeathLAB was recognized as one of New York Magazine’s 47 ‘Reasons to Love New York.’ Most recently, DeathLAB was named a finalist in the category of Behavioral Change for Katerva’s Accelerating the Future Award.

Rothstein has been honored by Built by Women New York City (BxW NYC) celebrating the leadership and achievements of women working in the building professions, and as a finalist for Columbia University’s Presidential Teaching Award. Supported as a Jacob Javits Fellow in Fine Arts from 1988–1992, a William Kinne Traveling Fellow in 1992, and a NYFA recipient in 2000, Rothstein’s professional and academic work has been featured and/or exhibited at Storefront for Art and Architecture, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Barnard College, Columbia University, Van Alen Institute, Max Protetch Gallery, the Center for Architecture,, Gizmodo, Architecture magazine, Casabella, The New York Times, London Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Columbia Magazine, New York Magazine, NPR,, Wallpaper City Guide NYC, UnCubed, WIRED Japan.


David Zhai is a partner at CO-Office, a user-experience design firm. Davis leads applied R&D, integrating technology in the design of collaborative work environments, experiential retail, and community-driven residential Prior to this role, David was the computational technologies and exterior envelope lead for the design of World Trade Tower 2 at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), where he also led R&D in virtual reality. David is a recipient of the Graham Foundation grant on his research into company and organizational culture and its effects on workplace environments, domestic life, and urban transformation. David holds a Master of Architecture from Columbia University GSAPP, where he was the recipient of the Kinne Fellowship Award, the Lowenfish Memorial Award, and the Design Excellence Award, and where he has assisted in the Masters program in both the Core and Advanced studios since 2012. He has been a adjunct associate professor at NJIT since Spring 2017.

Zhida Wu is a critical thinker and a practical project architect. He holds a B.Arch from South China University of Technology and has recently completed his Master of Science in Advanced Architecture Design at Columbia University GSAPP. Zhida is co-founder and partner of the Shenzhen-based research and curation association Center of Decentralization (JIXI Salon), an open platform focused on educational justice and retro-territorialization of cultural institutions. The forthcoming issue of BLYNKT magazine explores the intertwined complexity of individual and society in the pan-media era, and reimagined the municipal services and systems in the concubine villages in Shenzhen, which will be exhibited in HK-SZ Design Biennale 2017. Zhida has a background in parametric design and emulation technology, and his research paper Meteorological Architecture in Uncertainty will be presented at the Design Modeling Symposium in Paris 2017.


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