The Future of the Architect

Mark Wigley, dean

Education is all about trust. The best teachers embrace the future by trusting the student, supporting the growth of something that cannot be seen yet, an emergent sensibility that cannot be judged by contemporary standards. A school dedicated to the unique life and impact of the thoughtful architect must foster a way of thinking that draws on everything that is known in order to jump into the unknown, trusting the formulations of the next generation that by definition defy the logic of the present. Education becomes a form of optimism that gives our field a future by trusting the students to see, think and do things we cannot.

This kind of optimism is crucial at a school like the GSAPP at Columbia. The students arrive in New York City from around 55 different countries armed with an endless thirst for experimentation. It is not enough for us to give each of them expertise in the current state-of-the-art in architecture so that they can decisively assert themselves around the world by producing remarkable buildings, plans and policies. We also have to give them the capacity to change the field itself, to completely redefine the state-of-the-art. More than simply training architects how to design brilliantly, we redesign the figure of the architect. Columbia’s leadership role is to act as a laboratory for testing new ideas about the possible roles of designers in a global society. The goal is not a certain kind of architecture but a certain evolution in architectural intelligence.

Architecture is a set of endlessly absorbing questions for our society rather than a set of clearly defined objects with particular effects. Architects are public intellectuals, crafting forms that allow others to see the world differently and perhaps to live differently. The real gift of the best architects is to produce a kind of hesitation in the routines of contemporary life, an opening in which new potentials are offered—new patterns, rhythms, moods, sensations, pleasures, connections and perceptions. The architect’s buildings are placed in the city like the books of a thoughtful novelist might be placed in a newsstand in a railway station, embedding the possibility of a rewarding detour amongst all the routines, a seemingly minor detour that might ultimately change the meaning of everything else. The architect crafts an invitation to think and act differently.

GSAPP likewise cultivates an invitation for all the disciplines devoted to the built environment to think differently. Its unique mission is to move beyond the highest level of professional training to open a creative space within which the disciplines can rethink themselves, a space of speculation, experimentation and analysis that allows the field to detour away from its default settings in order to find new settings, new forms of professional, scholarly, technical and ethical practice.

The heart of this open-ended laboratory is the design studios. All the overlapping and interacting programs at the school—Architecture, Urban Design, Historic Preservation, Urban Planning and Real Estate Development—teach design and are united in their commitment to the global evolution of the 21st century city. Every semester, the school launches more than 35 explorative studio projects that head off in different directions before reporting back their findings in juries, exhibitions and publications that stimulate an intense debate and trigger a new round of experiments. With a biodiversity of continually evolving research trajectories, the school operates as a multi-disciplinary think tank, an intelligent organism thinking its way through the uncertain future of the discipline and the global society it serves.

As in any other architecture school, the real work is done in the middle of the night. Avery Hall, the school’s neo-classical home since 1912—with its starkly defined symmetrical proportions communicating to the world the old belief that the secret of architectural quality is known, universal and endlessly repeatable—now acts as the late night incubator of a diversity of possible futures. At its base is Avery Library, the most celebrated architectural collection in the world, a remarkable container of everything architects have been thinking about in the past, neatly gathered within the traditional quiet space of a well organized archive. Up above are the dense and chaotic studio spaces bristling with electronics and new ideas. Somewhere between the carefully catalogued past and the buzz of the as yet unclassifiable future, the discipline evolves while everyone else sleeps. Having been continuously radiated by an overwhelming array of classes and waves of visiting speakers, symposia, workshops, exhibitions and debates, the students artfully rework the expectations of their discipline.

The pervasive atmosphere at GSAPP, the magic in the air from the espresso bar to the pin-up walls to the front steps to the back corner of the big lecture hall, is the feeling of being on the cutting edge, straddling the moving border between the known and the unknown in our field. It is hopefully an open questioning atmosphere in which students are able to do work that teaches their teachers. In the end, a school’s most precious gift is its generosity towards the thoughts that the next generation has yet to have.