Architecture + Urban Design

Richard Plunz, director

Columbia’s Architecture and Urban Design Program exploits the pedagogical potential of the design studio as a form of design-based inquiry. To explore how the city is thought, projects are seen as critical instruments to focus on topics in contemporary urban design practice. All three studios emphasize a multi-scalar approach to the urban site (local, neighborhood, metropolitan, regional and global) and approach Urban Design as an inter-disciplinary practice that engages with and negotiates between different actors in the urban dynamic.

In general the curriculum is focused on the futures of cities that have come of age in the modern industrial era and now face the transition to new forms and meanings, in dialogue with new cities in development. Particular emphasis is placed on questions of urban infrastructure and urban ecology. A dialogue is woven between New York City and other world capitals with analogous contemporary conditions, moving between recent theoretical debate on future urbanism and applied projects that directly engage the realities of transformation of the post-industrial city. In this way, the program attempts to engage both the daily reality of our urban condition and the theoretical abstraction of current academic debate. Within this position, Urban Design is pursued as a critical re-assessment of conventional approaches relative to questions of site and program, infrastructure, and form-mass, as they have come to be defined by Urban Design practice during this past century. The Urban Design curriculum is unique as a coherent pedagogic position on the role of architecture in the formation of a discourse on urbanism at this moment of post-industrial development and indeed, of post-urban sensibility relative to the traditional Euro-American settlement norms.

By proposing an expanded architecturally-based teaching model for urban design, the program advocates working from the “ground up,” rather than adopting “a top down” master-planning approach. It takes advantage of architecture’s traditional concerns for site specificity, spatial experience, construction logics, economics of organization, morphology, and physical form, while also engaging forms of knowledge associated with disciplines such as urban planning, urban ecology, and landscape design. In this sense, the program is considered experimental, exploratory, and unorthodox in comparison to the established canons of the traditional architectural design studio.

The sequencing of the studios is intended to build the linguistic substructure that is essential to urban design thought and practice. The use of language evolves from how representation of the urban site determines the quality of site knowledge (representation) to more specifically how discourse on the city determines interpretations of its past and projections of its futures (discourse) to the invention of the strategic languages of public engagement involving operational mechanisms for urban transformation at both the formal and programmatic levels (public synthesis). This sequence asserts that the grounding conditions of an urban design project – site and program – are complex mechanisms that must be actively and critically constructed rather than simply accepted as “givens” beyond a designer’s control. While each Urban Design studio presents students with differing urban conditions and programming opportunities, all three semesters together reinforce the program’s commitment to help individual designers to develop rigorous Urban Design tools and methods, to acquire a working language to communicate Urban Design ideas and to enhance the critical skills needed to test and refine urban design strategies.