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Playing with Purpose: SANDBOX at The collectivity project

Photos by Stephanie Wilkins

Looking to have an art-filled August? SANDBOX, a series of workshops examining the intersection of urban space, architecture, and collective design that operates within the LEGO© landscape of Olafur Eliasson's The collectivity project, is already well underway. Over the course of three weeks in August, facilitators Dan Taeyoung and Austin Smith will explore three distinct topics about the collective design of cities with architecture and urban planning students. Each workshop encourages participants to play and treat The collectivity project as a sandbox, where they can iterate their imaginations in a reckless or free form manner, interact with each other, and collectively discuss their microcosms of cities. The first installment centered on connectivity—how to create it through space and adjacency, and how urban features can sustain connectivity over time.

The workshop began with a short presentation, introducing the overall goal for the workshop and proposing questions about design and time to guide participants throughout the workshop. Afterward, the students were paired off and asked to work with the LEGOs, thinking collectively about the connections between existing structures.

While participants roamed freely through the exhibit, dismantling and re-crafting structures collaboratively, we picked their brains about architecture and design within the context of the High Line.

"What Dan and I are attracted to is not coming from the architectural field," said Austin Smith, one of the educators of the workshop. "We have perceptions, or maybe lack thereof, of what our canvas should or should not be, so part of our collaboration or partnership has been to complicate and convolute a lot of the questions about the ways in which people produce architecture, both in academic settings and maybe in professional settings."

Both Austin Smith and Dan Taeyoung boast a strong background in architectural design, yet their interests in the discipline diverge from conventional study. Austin is a cofounder of Semi Auto Architecture, HelloEverything Design, and a Masters in Architecture Candidate at MIT '16. His work explores networked design frameworks for the participatory intervention in the built environment. Dan, in contrast, is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia Graduate of School Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and Research Associate at the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia GSAPP. His work operates at the intersection of architecture, technology, and community.

Their united focus on the negotiations between urban space and its inhabitants thus shaped the rest of the workshop; students were asked to interrogate current urban conditions and envision their own cities by playtesting. According to Dan, the first workshop was, "entirely about treating the city with total seriousness, as the public coming onto the site are designers themselves playing with form."

The participants keenly sprang up to the challenge. Gathered around a circular table bursting with towering constructions and free standing designs, the students got to work, communicating their ideas with their partners and working together to realize their collective vision. Although their minds were focused on the LEGO-sized scale that laid before them, their broader ideas about architectural design and community were far from miniature.

David, one of the program participants and a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Architecture, provided some insight into the connection between the collaborative SANDBOX workshop and contemporary urban conditions. "The High Line here feels kind of like a launch pad for other things, like 'the next big thing'," David said. "It seems like a very good place to think about [urban conditions]. At some point we'll realize that what we're doing here is happening out there in the real world."

Looking out at Hudson Yards and the newest section of the High Line by 30th street, other participants also contextualized the workshop's significance within their surrounding environment. The organizers Dan and Austin pointed out the program's close relation to the site in which it's located.

Austin commented that both he and Dan intended very much to have the content reflect back on the actual urban dynamics that are happening in New York City to the High Line.

"I don't think you could get that kind of energy or kind of relentless creativity that comes with The collectivity project if it weren't on the High Line or in a different space, less accessible, less open, or less feeling open to nature or the Hudson," Dan said.

Participants seemed to agree. Joe, a professor and freelance architect, compared his own vision for his future city to the communal space created at the High Line.

"When you're working on a project as an architect, one of the rewards is the end user and figuring out who you're designing for," Joe said. "So a project like the High Line for example is amazing because it can be experienced by millions of people, all incomes, from all over the world. I think the combination of the High Line itself and this exhibit that's usually open to the public is an amazing experience. The city in general needs that sort of thing: the more construction for the public, the more encouraged engagement from the people."

The SANDBOX workshops saw their second realization on Sunday, August 9 from 10 AM to 1 PM, and will continue on Tuesday, August 18, from 6 PM to 8 PM. Or, come learn more about the relationship between design, community, and public space in the fall by joining us at, "What is Public? A Discussion with the Institute for Public Architecture" on Wednesday, September 9 from 6 to 8 PM, and "A Zoning Workshop by the Center for Urban Pedagogy" on Thursday, September 24 from 6 to 8 PM.


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