A Insight


Architectural Graduate and former employee, Ashleigh Low, was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Columbia University in New York. As the recipient of the inaugural Warren and Mahoney International Study Scholarship, she has spent the last 12 months undertaking a Masters of Science in Advanced Architectural Design where she has explored and challenged the digital design boundaries. 

After attending the GSAPP (Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation) at Columbia University this past academic year, I am yet to decide how an Ivy League institution survives with paper timesheets; just kidding. But on a more serious note, I wonder whether the notion of "paperless" studios was a poncey scheme to hide the fact that they could squeeze in more students and desks into the 100 year old Avery Hall building. Its reputation is still second to none and I will never forget the production line of graduates at the fleeting faculty commencement ceremony.

Nevertheless, whatever institution you enter these days, you're always a number - in my case AEL2169. I decided to use grad school to experiment and question on one level the dialogues of architectural representation using both analogue and digital techniques and on another level, explore. The MSAAD (Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design) program at Columbia is able to support this by offering its student three open semesters which require a studio, history and another elective. I undertook three studios run by three very different professors along with an eclectic compilation of electives. The advantage of taking three different studios allowed for three different design processes and strategies and hence three different challenges.

The prestige of the program at Columbia boasts the opportunity to be taught by some of the field's 'greatest' contemporaries and most forward thinking minds. I had the privilege of being taught and critiqued by Nanako Umemoto, Mabel Wilson, Hilary Sample, Yehuda Safran, Amale Andraos and Enrique Walker. 


01 - Columbia University in New York
02 - Hilary Sample model
03 - Nanako Umemoto
04 - Mabel Wilson


Alongside a fulltime schedule, I managed to sneak in a couple of shifts at the school workshop for some extra pocket money. We had to man laser cutters, 3-D printers and large format printers to help produce student work. The amount of student work was intriguing, alarming and fascinating all at the same time. It not only proved the laziness of some, but the false economy and efficiencies that the luxury of these machines were capable of producing. The number of simple squares that could have easily been hand cut, together with the 3-D printed models that could have been laser cut and pieced together instead, was astounding. Furthermore, I started to understand the crippling habits of tradition by the way the architecture school decided to stay in Avery Hall and of course, paper timesheets.

The way Columbia folds theory into its curriculum has personally resulted in a new found appreciation and adoption in the way it can sit alongside my own practice and thinking. The program assumes that its students already have a solid grounding in theory and uses its theory electives as a forum where students can expand and question their thinking. Students are invited to come up with their own conclusions. In the Spring semester, I looked forward to Yehuda Safran's weekly class - one I referred to as Grandpa's story time. Professor Safran combined a class of philosophy with architecture. Each class had a different theme and when Safran was asked what his own philosophy and theory was, he responded with  "never stop inventing."

One of the most unique and influential parts of the course is the opportunity to travel. A string of Studios (called Studio X) are dotted around the globe as architectural research stations. In the Fall and Spring semesters I travelled to Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro. Both studios had challenging sites situated in each city. The chance to travel provides students the ability to fully immerse themselves within the country's culture, understand the urban morphology and design architectural propositions that are appropriate to the contexts. I have unforgettable experiences from both trips which enabled us to see the full spectrum of the way people live and interact with the city and its urban fabric.

05 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
06 - Soweto, South Africa



Now a fresh Columbia alumni I have begun a process of reflection. What did three semesters of school and blood, sweat, (no tears) teach me about architecture and consequently the role of digital technologies?

I'm not entirely sure that it revolutionised my thinking, but rather confirmed a number of things. It confirmed that technology cannot exist alone. When we adopt new technologies we should be careful about fetishising specific methods of representation. Moreover, your 3-D printers, laser and plasma cutters are new tools in the tool box that allow us to experiment and invent.  We should continue to strive for design processes that combine analogue and digital technologies through the fabrication of physical models at any scale or presentation standard.

Throughout this degree, the architecture of New Zealand has always been in the back of my mind. New Zealand is in a unique position, having youth, multiculturalism and no immensely strong traditions to abide by. Or alternatively said, we are in one of the best positions to invent and inspire. Industries responsible for creating the built environment should maximise the new tools and technologies to create an exciting built environment that can become as famous as our landscape.

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