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A Brief History of the Urban Design Program

The Urban Design Program at Columbia originated in 1935, when the Carnegie Corporation funded a postgraduate curriculum in order to "enlarge the range of studies offered to architects" within the fields of urbanism and housing. The original experiment was dominated by the personages of Henry Wright, Werner Hegemann, and Carol Aronovici. Their extensive work on the linkages between the social and physical form of the emerging twentieth-century metropolis initiated a discourse that still resonates in the Program.

A separate Master of Science for Urban Design was initiated in the 1964-1965 school year with Percival Goodman as a prime pedagogic force. During this time, the program was shaped by a dissatisfaction with urban "renewal" and urban dispersal in the United States and by the critical practices of post-CIAM work, especially the methods and ideas of the Team X group. Between 1972 and 1974, the program was restructured under the directorship of Romaldo Giurgola, and then again in 1974 under Alexander Cooper, a member of the New York City Planning Commission. With the involvement of Stanton Eckstut, the program was heavily refocused on Urban Design practice, as it had evolved in New York City during the Lindsay administration. This approach held until 1992 when Richard A. Plunz, one of the world’s leading authorities in urban housing, became Director and expanded the program's commitment to social engagement and to an enlarged scope of the practices, tasks and complexities of urban design.

Catalytic individuals of that period included David Grahame Shane, Andrea Kahn, Moji Baratloo and Brian McGrath, among many others, all of whom were committed to urban design as collaborative practice and as deeply engaged with digital media. Kate Orff, a renowned landscape architect and urban designer, assumed leadership of the program in 2015, having taught at Columbia since 2003. Looking forward, Orff will expand research into global urbanization processes, ecological risk and infrastructural adaptation, all deeply affected by climate change.


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