Course Syllabus


Power Tools

Visual Studies, Columbia GSAPP, Spring 2021, Thursdays 11-1 pm

Lexi Tsien and Jelisa Blumberg


Course Description: 

Architectural education and discourse are inextricable from the sociopolitical. Institutional critique is taking new forms and necessitating new paradigms. This course aims to leverage collective and DIY knowledge building as a representational technique and a tool of power. Architects and contributors to the built environment must challenge hierarchical structures, the canonization of the discipline, and the efficacy of architectural institutions. Emergent networks allow participants to evaluate and retool their own education and environment. 


To do our work, we will have a tripartite structure of research, design, and implementation. We will first look at a diverse array of historical and contemporary DIY formats such as the zine, meme, catalog, almanac, instructional video, cookbook, hotline, and how-to-manual as transformative models of self-education. During the second part of the semester, seminar participants will use visual representation techniques to organize, design and develop antiracist content. In the latter part of the semester, students will work in groups to design physical and/or digital delivery methods for their chosen campus or community; hacking formats such as the bulletin, newsstand, billboard, monument, or a method of their own invention. What is the threshold for action? What are the visual tools and architectures of protest and resistance? How do we define the sites and formats of critique? How does a Power Tool expedite action and inform the problem of making?


The final project requires students to design a built manifestation that can be deployed on various campuses digitally and / or physically, such as a bulletin board, suggestion box, kiosk, newsstand, library, monument, or format of their own invention. 


Course Structure: 

Seminar weeks will alternate between students presenting their research, group discussions with invited guests, workshops, and collective pin-ups. The final deliverable is a Power Tool with all necessary content, instructions, and documentation of its use. 



1/14 Week 1: Introductions, Community Agreements, Precedent Signup, Collective Index

Part I: Define a Power Tool 

Lecture I: Introduction of Power Tool Web

Reading: Mandalas or Raised Fists? Hippie Holism, Panther Totality, and Another 

Modernism (Simon Sadler, Hippie Modernism, pp. 114-125)

Excerpt: Co-evolution Quarterly, and Whole Earth Catalogue 

Supersurface: an alternative model for life on earth 

1/21 Week 2: Collective Pin-up (Part I: Define a Power Tool)

1/28 Week 3: Part II: Design a Tool

Lecture II: Technocultures

Reading: Technocultures 

Radical Technoculture for Racial Equity, Ari Melenciano

From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner, HKW 

2/4 Week 4: Desk Crits 1/2 (Part II: Design a Tool)

Reading: Mutual Aid

The Revolution will not be funded

2/11 Week 5: Desk Crits 2/2 (Part II: Design a Tool) 

Discussion: Mutual Aid

Reading: Institutional and extrainstitutional critique

The Black Workshop at Yale

52 Years Later

Midterms 2/8-2/19

2/18 Week 6: Guest speakers / critics: Mindy Seu, Cyberfeminism Index and Esther Choi, Office Hours 

Discussion: Institutional and extrainstitutional critique

Reading: Emergent Strategy 

2/25 Week 7: Part III: Implement a Tool

Discussion: Group brainstorm, defining an audience 

Spring Break 3/1-3/5

3/11 Week 8: Prototype microcritique with Curry Hackett & Jerome Haferd

3/18 Week 9: Signs of Protest 

3/25 Week 10: Press and proliferation 

A83 Gallery Visit 

4/1 Week 11: Documentation Review 

4/8 Week 12: Final Review of Power Tools with Invited Guest Critics 

PART 1 : Define a Power Tool


What is a power tool? We will begin to answer this prompt by researching and analyzing historical examples of precedent media (ie, Inflatacookbook, Shelter, Superstudio Life Without Objects, Whole Earth Catalogue, The Women’s Survival Guide, The Negro Motorist Greenbook and/or media of the participant’s choosing) along with contemporary evolutions of past radical movements. We might compare agendas across history to existing institutions and power structures (such as the splinter model of the Black Workshop at Yale in 1968 to today’s consortium model of Dark Matter University, Dark Study, and Afrotectopia), the relationship between media and community (such as the DIY collective authorship of the New Women’s Survival Catalogue and Our Bodies Ourselves to today’s open source Cyberfeminst Index)..


With this research, participants are to identify a relevant contemporary problem, system and/or tool of power that can be subverted or co-opted to empower an audience in need of agency. What type of content is required and where are the missing links that need to be made? Once individuals have identified their trajectory of interest, we will collectively decide on how individuals can work together to combine efforts or develop their efforts to support one another. 



Individuals will provide written statements that identify a problem, an audience that is affected by this problem and a power tool that empowers this audience. This will be presented with text, initial diagrams along with necessary content (or examples of content) that illustrates a course of work. 


PART 2 : Design a Power Tool


Design your own power tool based on the problem, content and format identified in Part 1. Combine efforts in self selected groups (or as one large group) to either become a single amalgamated tool or as a set of tools that work in concert with each other to support each other under the same mission. 


  1. Expand on and edit a statement, mission, community guidelines and/or a set of principles for the tool(s). 
  2. Diagram the relationship between the tool(s), digital/physical site, intended audience(s) and adjacent communities or institutions. 
  3. Develop necessary content and create a set of case study examples with the content that can be used to test out the intended use of the tool(s). 
  4. Create a prototype that can be tested with the class and/or visiting guests. The supporting text and diagram will be used to recognize where the prototype is working, not working and where there is potential for less or more. 



For proof of concept review, provide text, diagram and any key references/readings along with a draft of a prototype that exemplifies key potentials for this tool before the final implementation. 

The review will be used as a checkpoint and work session to understand what needs to be edited and how to begin making a critical path schedule for the final implementation. 


PART 3: Implement a Power Tool


Implement your tool, document how it works and how it disseminates information digitally or physically. Consider the following questions. How does it interface with a user? How many entry points are there and do they require different sets of instructions for engagement? How is it assembled? What is the lasting impact? Is the tool/device expandable? Is it something that can be replicated? Does it take on a life of it’s own or does it require oversight? How do you define the primary and secondary communities of engagement? Is it to benefit as many people as possible or people in the fringes?


With these questions in mind and findings from an initial prototype, the final power tool will be created and disseminated and left to be used. This could be tested on a few chosen users or could be shared. 



Compile your work, diagrams, and supporting text along with documentation of the final tool(s), to be discussed in the final review. If applicable, the final review can be used as the final testing ground for relevant tools. 



Students will be asked to complete readings and gather impressions within Miro. Students are welcome and will sometimes be prompted to suggest readings or articles they find especially pertinent to the issue or topic at hand. While students are reading we suggest they write especially pertinent passages or comments. This is less a reading response than a low-labor exercise that allows them to rove, explore, contemplate, and begin to build their own web of knowledge. 


Miro: The miro board is the platform for the Power Tool Web that we’ll actively use for lectures, discussions, reading references, assignment brainstorming, and collaboration. Link here.



The platform will be a supplemental repository for collected readings, that is extracted from the Power Tool Web for safekeeping in a more digestible format.

Course Summary:

Date Details Due