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September 11, 2011 / Sustainable Futures

Sustainable Futures


It is crucial to understand now that we are all designers. Every square millimeter of the planet and its terrestrial, aquatic, and climactic systems has been made and remade by human hands. The question becomes, what is your design expertise? The Earth Institute / Columbia GSAPP Forum on the future of the Built Environment explores ideas of sustainable design and the future of the city, drawing from the deep and diverse experience of the Earth Institute and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The aim of the forum is to bring together the realms of science and design to address complex questions of environment and development with fresh thinking and a creative approach grounded in research, experimentation, and pilot projects. We will ask how to address sustainability on global, regional, and local scales – with a focus on the role of cities and on ideas that work.

The Seminar

This seminar intends to bring a critical perspective to the research and mission of the Earth Institute, while at the same time evolving the role of the GSAPP as an experimental design school towards a broader, more sustainable mission.  We will explore avenues of common purpose and shared techniques and approaches. The seminar will format involves a series of lectures that are integrated with parallel joint seminar discussion classes that will, through joint faculty guidance and relevant readings and case studies, facilitate informed discussion and exchange. Invited lecturers from the EI will present their research and provocations, and will be paired with a Columbia faculty member who will both give a ‘thick introduction’ to the topic, and serve to some extent as an interpreter and moderator of questions and exchange. In many cases the Columbia faculty member will be testing and exploring through their studio work issues and opportunities latent in the EI research. We will discuss the idea of connection and collaboration, the value of thinking horizontally to mesh together different perspectives and disciplines. Through a focus on built projects and case studies, the seminar will also highlight the reciprocity between thinking and making, researching and doing, desk work and fieldwork. As a parallel effort, the seminar will aim to incubate future conversations and collaborations among students and faculty.


The class includes lectures, library research, student-led discussions on case studies, and discussions of timely, controversial issues. Every other week, a two-professor team (one EI and one GSAPP) will give an introduction to their own work and a topic related to sustainability and design generally. This overview of a topic will provide examples of the application of various disciplines to sustainability and spark dialogue relative to overlap and potential in shared methodologies, concepts and practices. There will be assigned readings for each week which students are expected to be prepared to discuss. On alternating weeks, students will choose a case study on which they will explore the previous week’s topic using a real world example as a vehicle for discussion of the strengths and limitations of this approach.