X Marks the Spots

“In a way, this is a drawing of a new kind of university,” says Mark Wigley. The dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) is gesturing at a diagram that looks something like an occult symbol: a circle traversed by lines that weave a crazy pattern around and through it, with still other lines connecting additional circles around the perimeter. The smaller circles, in turn, are each inscribed with an emphatic-looking X.

“The X just means we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he adds. This is the spirit of experimentation behind Studio-X, an ambitious global educational initiative currently underway at GSAPP. Equal parts learning space, public forum, and international think tank, Studio-X “affords an enormous bandwidth for thinking about the future of cities,” Wigley says—a mandate that he cites as the core mission of the program, and the reason he first proposed it four years ago.

Since 2008, Studio-X has had a toehold in New York about a hundred blocks south of Columbia, at 180 Varick Street; it’s in the city’s well-known “architecture ghetto,” which is home to dozens of design offices. Weekday afternoons (and not a few weekends, as well), personnel from GSAPP’s various independent research laboratories occupy rows of tables at the rear of the 2,000-square-foot loft space, quietly crunching away at speculative design projects and magazine layouts. At night, young architectural galley slaves, from both 180 Varick and all over New York, flock to the space for specially continued on page 41 curated programs that also draw in technologists, politicians, business elites, and anyone with a stake in the urban prospect. “It’s a regular schedule of excellent coffee during the day, and very bad alcohol in the evening,” Wigley says.

It’s a sequence that’s repeated, to one degree or another, throughout a growing network of similarly constituted work/event spaces, in countries as far away as Brazil and China. With sister offices now open in Mumbai, Amman, Beijing, and Rio de Janeiro, and more in the offing in South Africa and Japan, Studio-X New York is one spoke in a wheel of architectural activity that is at once international and intensely localized. The overseas branches aren’t intended to be subordinate to either Columbia or the Manhattan pilot office—“not like Starbucks selling some sort of wisdom from New York,” as Wigley puts it. They’re idea incubators in their own right, feeding new knowledge about how cities live and change into a greater community of thought.

Regular visits to the international affiliates by Columbia students and faculty have become part of a “grafting” process, Wigley says, in which the Studio-X program is becoming increasingly integral to the GSAPP curriculum. “It’s about expanding the notion of the university beyond the institution itself,” explains Jeffrey Johnson, the director of the New York–based China Megacities Lab, who has led groups of students on semiannual visits to Studio-X Beijing since it opened in 2009. While there, he and his studio team have conducted workshops, collaborated with local designers, and held symposia on topics connected with urban development in China’s booming cities. The international experience, claims Johnson, has “broadened students’ understanding of how to think as architects,” readying them for a new world of “global practices” in the private sector.

Situated, like the New York studio, in the very heart of their respective downtowns, each Studio-X satellite operates as a discrete unit, with local directors setting a specific agenda. Yet all of the outposts, following the program’s mission, look to reinvigorate the urban conversation in their particular cities by engaging not just designers but culturally omnivrous thinkers from diverse backgrounds. This is where the programming schedule is key—and perhaps nowhere have Studio-X events been more diverse in their appeal than in New York, especially since married codirectors Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh came aboard this past August.

“It’s like in the Batman movies,” says Manaugh, founder of the popular architecture site BLDGBLOG, “where there are these guys in the basement building all the weird prototypes.” Since the couple arrived, the New York studio has hosted evening discussions on urban space as seen through topics like biocontrol of invasive species, imaginary casino security systems, “participatory sensing,” swarm robotics, and more. These sci-fi-inflected dialogues, the directors say, are explicitly aimed at making a break from the theoretical or historical preoccupations of the typical university lecture series. “We’re not looking to make this into a place where people just talk about the same articles from the same academics from the 1970s,” Manaugh says. “We want to reach a wider audience.” Twilley likewise affirms Studio-X’s para-academic trajectory: “In the past, architecture schools have not always been the best place to have conversations, at least not in the places where those conversations need to happen.”

By virtue of its location and its structure, Studio-X New York—and, by extension, each of the Studio-Xs around the globe—is meant to foster a new and more inclusive urban discourse connecting the profession, the university, and the world at large. But it’s precisely because of this “hybrid” character, as Wigley calls it, that Studio-X also seems subject to a number of questions as to how it intends to fuse its disparate functions.

The first concerns the place of the GSAPP labs within the physical studio space, and within the program as a whole. How much collaboration will emerge from the combination of lab researchers and event participants—between, that is, the coffee drinkers and the alcohol sippers? One recent evening at 180 Varick, during a group workshop demonstrating how attendees could turn their cameras into fun-filled spy gadgets, a contingent from one of the resident research labs was still at work in the back of the space, preparing material for a GSAPP course next spring. The young designers did not join in the camera-hacking hijinks, and filed out quietly during the presentation. Gavin Browning, who preceded Twilley and Manaugh at Studio-X New York, admits that the two halves of the Studio-X population are often “operating in separate spheres.” Similarly, Janette Kim, the codirector of the Urban Landscape Lab and a regular at the New York office, says that although her team sometimes attends after-hours events, they primarily use the studio as a base for their operations. Even so, Kim says that she finds the space “social more than anything.”

The space’s social character is part of its appeal. “The potential for the contact there to be informal allows for discussions to take place that don’t take place in a more official setting,” says Jeffrey Inaba, the head of C-Lab, another fixture of Studio-X New York. While this aspect might benefit the lab researchers who frequent the studio, what of the average architecture student at Columbia? The GSAPP research labs established by Wigley since his arrival in 2004 (19 in all, four of them staples of Studio-X New York) are faculty operated and intern staffed. Kim describes them as “bridges between the academic functions of the university and the way practice functions.” They’re designed to afford GSAPP instructors the opportunity to develop new ideas that may, in the future, be imported into the classroom, but there is no guarantee that students will benefit from the time their professors put in at Studio-X. Stephen Chou, a current Master of Architecture candidate at Columbia who spent several weeks at the Beijing office, says that while his stint abroad was “awesome,” his fellow students don’t avail themselves of the heady happenings downtown as much as they might: “Over the course of a semester in an architecture school, there are so many deadlines. If students had more time, they’d take more advantage of it.” The yearly study-abroad programs provide the only instruction that effectively grafts Studio-X onto the essential teaching mission of the university.

And then there is the question of how the overseas locales are meant to work in concert with one another, as well as with the university. When they’re not being visited by one of the American student groups (which is to say, the majority of the year), the far-flung outposts operate entirely independently of Columbia. Although that gives them considerable leeway to chart their own course, it reduces the overall coherence of the program. “We all have access to each others’ planning calendars,” says Twilley, referring to her fellow Studio-X directors, “and I check what they’re up to.
But we haven’t translated that information into a coordinated series.” International conversations seem central to the intellectual cross-pollination that Studio-X hopes to promote. But cohosted discussions on urbanism, design, and planning, whether undertaken by Skype or other digital media, have been infrequent. “I have not been directly involved with one,” says China Megacities Lab’s Johnson, though he notes that some have been planned.

Even if those conversations move forward, it may be more difficult to sustain compelling dialogues between and among the global locations than the fluid lines of Wigley’s diagram indicate. Some of Studio-X’s satellites are located in places where certain political issues, the kind of things that might be spoken about freely on the campus of Columbia University, simply cannot be addressed. Wigley, who also sees the program as a vehicle for bringing corporate figures into architectural conversations, believes there’s room for healthy debate, but he tends to downplay the potential for outright conflict. “These are spaces of contestation,” he says, “but there is a hospitality to it as well.” The price of this hospitality, in Amman and Beijing in particular, is a circumspection that is antithetical to having the critical conversations that can truly stimulate young architectural minds. As Studio-X considers expanding to Moscow, a city recently riven with discontent, Wigley’s policy of flexibility may be stretched to the breaking point.

The openness and open-endedness of Studio-X make it difficult to determine the project’s role in the worlds of architectural practice and pedagogy. But this may also prove a source of strength. The very flexibility of the Studio-X system could, as its creator hopes, portend a new model for design education—one that goes beyond conferring degrees, and entices young practitioners into intellectual encounters that emphasize their power to reinvent the urban landscape. Says Wigley, “If we’re going to respond to the question, ‘What is the future of cities?,’ I think the greatest expertise is attained between graduation and vegetation—25 to 40 years old.” By both teaching and learning from these newly minted designers, this university-outside-the-university may furnish an academic infrastructure capable of keeping pace with the changes in the built environment, worldwide. “After all, if we can’t redesign our schools,” Wigley adds, “how can we possibly imagine that we could redesign our cities?”

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