Aaron Smithson, CC ’19, is heading to Columbus—but not the avenue. Columbus, Indiana, is a 47,000-person town that sits halfway between Indianapolis and Louisville, which might seem like an odd vacation destination. But for Smithson, who was raised on the Upper West Side, it’s actually a pretty natural choice.
In Columbus, there’s “a weirdly high concentration” of notable architecture projects, as Smithson puts it, and he’s headed out there on a road trip with a friend to see them for himself, before driving back through Kentucky and West Virginia. Smithson, who has thin-frame glasses and a wide smile, is an avid observer, whether of the city or of architectural glory or of Kentucky: “I love beautiful things,” he says.
When he says that, he’s actually talking about his impending decision this fall: whether to apply for graduate school in architecture or in urban planning, or both. But he may as well be talking about any given part of his college career: about the community he’s found in COÖP or the Asian American Alliance or on John Jay 6, about his favorite classes, about his work with Design For America, about his upcoming road trip. A double major in urban studies and architectural history and theory, he’s touched many spaces at Columbia, both inside the classroom and out.
The grad school decision is proving to be a difficult one. Architecture comes naturally to him and since he was four years old, he has been drawing buildings, both from memory and from scratch. “My mom always tells this story,” he says. “My preschool teacher telling her, like, ‘We need to get Aaron to draw something other than buildings.’ And here I am, still not doing that.” Smithson received both the thesis prize and departmental honors this year in the art history department, which the architectural history and theory major is housed under.
On the other hand, however, there are opportunities to effect change that come with a career in urban planning. Activism, in both built and social spaces, has been one of the most revelatory experiences of college for Smithson. In AAA in particular, he’s encountered a lot of conversations and issues that he hadn’t previously considered. “That’s part of the reason why I'm starting to tilt away, for the first time in my life, from architecture, because I don’t see as many opportunities to engage,” he says. “Urban policy has a lot to do with justice issues, and I think there’s a lot for planners to fix.”
He’s tried to do some of that replanning already at Columbia, through Design For America, which he’s been part of since his first year. For the past couple of years, he’s focused on on-campus spaces: This year’s changes in residence hall lounge booking systems, for instance, have come as a result of surveying students and conversation with the administration. He’s currently examining the potential uses for Ancel Plaza—the space over Amsterdam Avenue—as well as on installing more moveable furniture on campus.
After the road trip, Smithson plans to find work related to his degree and complete his grad school application. He’s both naturally academic and not too self-serious. Case in point: “I have certain professors that are encouraging me to go for a Ph.D. because they see me as like someone who would be fit for academia. I don't know if that’s an insult or a compliment.” (Later, he tells me as an aside, “I was really into development economics for a long time.”)
Whatever he does, Smithson says, it’ll continue to be spatial. “I’ve been, I guess, clinically obsessed with the built environment for a while.”