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06.25.2012
Edutopia?
Schools reap benefits of extracurricular bedfellors.
Columbia's GSAPP has recently partnered with Audi, Nokia, and IBM.
Photo courtesy GSAPP; Montage by AN

Collaboration is a keystone of architectural practice and education. But with the rise of an Internet culture obsessed with no-holds-barred sharing, how collaboration is defined continues to shift, especially in education as a wave of decentralized, nontraditional arrangements swells. The new models forge partnerships outside of the traditional faculty-student relationship and incorporate broader fields of knowledge. It could be labeled “open source pedagogy.” And today’s collaborations aren’t just between architecture schools, but more and more frequently also involve corporate sponsors, with their own far-reaching agendas.

These new university-corporate relationships are different from past models with research opportunities functioning as “jobs” for which the university answers a research question contracted to them. In the new model, the questions aren’t as defined; there is a mutual exploration of broad topics through new relationships based on open-source information networks. At Columbia University that means partnering with businesses that are asking many of the same big questions that an architecture school might. Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) Mark Wigley said “to remain competitive, global companies maintain vast research arms that look a lot like universities, and similarly, to remain relevant, a university must take on many of the characteristics of a business.”

Columbia’s recent partnerships include C-BIP, the Columbia Building Intelligence Project, which was underwritten in 2009 by Oldcastle Building Envelope and focuses on building technology and sustainability. Nokia, IBM, and Audi have also recently partnered with GSAPP. Wigley says the school does not look to benefit financially, only intellectually, yet corporate dollars do support a level of student research and travel that would otherwise not be possible. The findings are eventually incorporated into public events, such as panel discussions or exhibitions.

The relationships emphasize opportunity, giving access to cutting-edge research to students who in turn contribute their own innovative thinking. For example, Oldcastle shared their knowledge with C-BIP and the students’ informed experiments led to breakthroughs in building envelope technology. This platform for innovation between state of the art engineers at companies and students and faculty constitutes a kind of win-win feedback loop. This year’s Audi Experiments in Motion project seeks similar results, and its research on the future of mobility in cities will be showcased this summer in a public forum.

But these types of corporate relationships raise issues: are for-profit businesses controlling the curriculum, taking advantage of research, or compromising the ideals of the university? Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert A. M. Stern doesn’t think so, citing Yale’s long-standing relationship with software company Autodesk, which provides students with knowledge and skills while allowing them to test out the latest technologies in digital fabrication. “The small amount of corporate support that we do have is welcomed by those who govern the curriculum as a way to extend our reach,” said Stern.

While these experimental collaborations can be exciting for companies, students, and faculty, their success must ultimately be judged in a traditional way: by identifying clear learning goals and measurable results, especially as “small amounts of corporate support” morph into vast co-dependencies.

Matt Shaw