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Center for Spatial Research at Columbia University

Press Release
21 September 2015

Columbia University Receives Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant to Establish Center for Spatial Research

Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences are pleased to announce the creation of an interdisciplinary Center for Spatial Research. Directed by GSAPP Associate Professor Laura Kurgan, the Center will serve as a hub for urban research that links the humanities, architecture, and data science and will also sponsor a series of curricular initiatives built around new technologies of mapping, data visualization and data collection.

The Center is made possible through a grant of $1,975,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Kurgan serves as principal investigator on the grant, and is joined by Sharon Marcus, Dean of the Humanities and Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature, as co-principal investigator. The grant makes Columbia University a participant in the Mellon Foundation’s Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities initiative, which was launched in 2012. As of September 2015, it has awarded grants to 16 institutions. The grants aim to support the development of new relations between programs in the humanities and schools of architecture, experimentation with the architecture studio as a pedagogic model for the humanities, and research about large, humanistic questions that arise in dense urban environments around the world.

Data about public health, transportation, economic activity, and demography, have long been used in order to shape urban spaces and change public behavior. From John Snow’s 1854 water well survey of London, which identified the source of a cholera epidemic, to the infamous 1930s real estate maps whose “redlining” facilitated housing discrimination in American cities, data has been a powerful force shaping cities, for better and for worse. The contemporary explosion in data generation, collection and processing has only accelerated these processes.

The Center for Spatial Research (CSR) will foster a qualitative and critical approach to this burgeoning field, working with data in ways that open up new areas of research and inquiry with advanced tools in mapping, geo-spatial data, and visualization to help scholars and citizens understand what’s happening in cities worldwide – past, present and future.

“Laura’s long standing pioneering work in visualizing data as an architect, with a deep commitment to engaging social, political and environmental issues, and a unique ability to draw aesthetics and ethics together, has been a critical inspiration to our school and to the field of architecture,” said Amale Andraos, dean of Columbia GSAPP. “This new collaboration with Sharon Marcus and the humanities is an important step forward for Columbia. We are very grateful to the Mellon Foundation for its embrace of this initiative, which will contribute not only to the fields of architecture, urbanism and the humanities but to the University as a whole.”

“I congratulate Laura and Sharon on the successful launch of this important and exciting project and I am thrilled to be forging new ties between GSAPP and the Arts and Sciences,” said David Madigan, executive vice president and dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The Center’s initial research inquiries will focus on “conflict urbanism,” which Kurgan describes as “the way cities have not only been destroyed but transformed and even created through conflict. From the inner cities of the United States to the refugee camps and urban battlefields of the war in Syria,” she said, “conflict fundamentally shapes the places where we live.”

In addition to its research activities, the Center for Spatial Research’s programs will include lectures, symposia, workshops, web tutorials and classes, including intensive courses for faculty in data analysis and visualization.

The new Center supersedes the Spatial Information Design Lab, an interdisciplinary research unit founded by Professor Kurgan at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in 2004.


Laura Kurgan is associate professor of Architecture at GSAPP, where she directs the Visual Studies curriculum. Her work explores the ethics and politics of mapping, new structures of participation in design, and the visualization of urban and global data. She is the author of Close Up At a Distance (Zone Books, 2013), as well as numerous articles and research reports. She was the winner of the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship in 2009, and her work has been exhibited internationally, including in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.

Sharon Marcus specializes in the literature of nineteenth-century England and France, with an emphasis on the novel, theater and performance, architecture and urbanism, and gender and sexuality. She is the author of numerous books and essays, including Apartment Stories: City and Home in 19th-Century Paris and London (University of California Press, 1999), and a founder and co-editor-in-chief of the online review Public Books. As Dean of Humanities at Columbia University, her priorities include supporting teaching and research; promoting collaboration across departments, schools, and divisions; and developing and executing a strategic plan to make the humanities more digital, more public and more global.

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Founded in 1969, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation endeavors to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies by supporting exemplary institutions of higher education and culture as they renew and provide access to an invaluable heritage of ambitious, path-breaking work.