After spending the summer collaborating with Gensler, the architectural firm that is designing Columbia’s new medical center buildings, Design for America hopes to turn its proposals into realities on campus this semester.
DFA is a community service group that uses design to make social impact. Their past projects have included working with Columbia facilities to redesign recycling bins and designing a problem-solving boardgame for P.S./M.S. 135 in Brooklyn.
“We are really trying to re-imagine community service,” Andrew Demas, CC ’15, said. “Not putting a Band-Aid on an issue but thinking of a long-lasting solution that we develop, whether a product or a system.”
Demas has been a member of Columbia’s DFA chapter since his first year and was involved in this summer’s project, dubbed #summerstudio13.
The students in DFA sought out Gensler for their summer project, because they thought Gensler and DFA had a lot in common. Demas contacted the firm after seeing an article written by Gensler’s Maddy Burke-Vigeland about “spaces and how educational facilities can be better equipped to provide students with better learning tools in the way spaces are constructed,” he said. He said the article’s theme resonated with DFA’s community aims.
The summer project consisted of a collaboration between DFA members and Gensler interns. The interns, supervised by the DFA members, were assigned the task of designing solutions to problems facing the Columbia campus. At the end of the summer, the students pitched potential projects to Gensler representatives and Columbia administrators.
Eric Tan, GSAPP ’10 and a designer at Gensler’s New York architectural studio, said he felt that Gensler and DFA were natural partners.
“We both have a strong focus on solving problems through design and trying to use design to just bring people together—to solve some of the social problems that we have, problems regarding space, how people interact, how people work and how people choose to live their lives,” he said.
During #summerstudio13, four teams pitched projects to improve Columbia’s campus.
One proposal was a festival, titled “Uni,” that would aim to bridge the divide between the campus and its surrounding neighborhoods. A second proposal, the “scribble matrix,” was a series of interactive digital bulletin boards that would be used to communicate information about what is happening on campus.
A third project called “the shack” would provide a place to rent recreational items like skateboards and bikes. Finally, there was “Senescape”—which Gensler describes as “a collapsible structure that utilizes sensory stimulation to create a playful moment of respite for students.”
Rachel Ganin, a design analyst in consulting practice at Gensler, noted that all of the summer projects dealt with the problem of fostering community on campus in some way.
“The overarching themes were student isolation, from one another and from the greater New York communities,” she said. “Each team dealt with how to create more community.”
Demas pointed to the lack of common space and the large number of single dorm rooms as examples of isolating factors at the University. Low Steps, he said, exemplify a successful space because “students feel they can take ownership of it.”
Demas said that DFA hopes to collaborate with other student groups, as well as with administrators, as the group looks for ways to solidify its ideas.
“We are probably going to work with CU Wellness to see if these projects would be effective on campus, and then our hope is to talk to administrators,” Demas said. “The main thing is just to spread the word about DFA, because this project really did take off.”
Katherine Cutler, a Student Affairs spokesperson, attended the summer showcase and said she plans to present some of the ideas to Terry Martinez, interim dean of Student Affairs, and Todd Smith-Bergollo, interim dean of Community Development and Multicultural Affairs.
Demas noted that the Columbia representatives who attended the project pitches—including Cutler, Lynnette Widder from the Office of Sustainability Management, and Schawannah Wright, associate director of the Office of Community Outreach and Education—were very “Columbia-minded—they were asking questions like, ‘Is this sustainable? What is your budget?’” he said.
Peter Cerneka, associate director of the Office of Student Engagement and DFA’s adviser, said he’s excited by the group’s projects and hopes to help DFA execute some of their designs.
“They are one of my favorite groups, one of the more dynamic groups on campus,” he said. “I’m not afraid to say that when I meet with other groups, especially community-service based groups, I have DFA in mind.”
“As their adviser, I hope to help them,” he added. “I want it to be a no-brainer that students and administrators will say yes, let’s put our dollars behind this.”
Spectator managing editor Finn Vigeland, the son of Maddy Burke-Vigeland, recused himself from the editing of this article.