Time-lapse Animation of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This animation reconstructs the exact conditions of the workplace, the locations of each fallen body, and the progress of the 1911 fire minute by minute. It is in an accurate-to-the-inch virtual reality model based on trial records and primary sources.


Audio testimonies from:
Pauline Newman letter from May 1951, 6036/008, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives. Cornell University, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.
Louis Waldman eyewitness in Labor Lawyer, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1944, pp. 32-33.
Anna Gullo in the case of The People of the State of New York v. Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, December 11, 1911, pp. 362.


The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – in Manhattan’s West Village on Saturday, March 25, 1911 – was the deadliest fire in New York City history (and one of the deadliest fires in American history)  until the terror attacks on the Twin Towers,. The factory was located on floors 8, 9, and 10 of the Asch Building, built in 1901 for various garment sweatshops.
To prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks, to reduce theft, and to block union organizers from entering the factory, the exit doors to the stairwells were locked – a common and legal practice at the time. As a result, more than half of the 9th floor workers could not escape the burning building.
As a result of the fire and lack of workplace protections, 146 garment workers – 123 women and girls and 23 men – died by fire, smoke inhalation, or jumping and falling from the 9th floor windows. Most victims were recent Italian or Jewish immigrant women and girls aged 14 to 23.
After the fire, factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were not convicted, were ruled “not guilty.” They “compensated” each victim’s family a mere $75. The fire led to news laws requiring fire sprinklers in factories, safety inspections, and working conditions. The fire also motivated the growing International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union that organized sweatshop workers to fight for a living wage and workplace protections.


Virtual Reality Model


Primary Sources

– Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives (website)
– The 1,500 page transcript of witness and survivor testimonies (transcript)
– Victim names and causes of death (source and map of victim home addresses)
– Original architectural plans of the building used in the trial (PDF plans and source)


Architectural Plans


Audio Sources

Horse drawn carriage
Power loom
Workplace bell
Large crowd
Small fire
Large fire
Fire truck bell
Fire hose
Dull thud
– Closing song: Solidarity Forever by Pete Seeger, 1998

Time-lapse History of the United States

This animation visualizes 272,000 data points spanning 220+ years of the U.S. census since 1790. With data from the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) at the University of Minnesota, I geo-referenced racial dot maps for all ten year intervals since 1790. Overlaying and fading time-lapse cartographies into each other reveals the scale of environmental and urban change.
● Each dot represents 10,000 people.
Top ten largest cities for each decade are labeled in orange.

Musical accompaniment by Philip Glass from the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. In the Hopi language of the indigenous peoples of Arizona, the word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance.”
As you watch the map, ask:
1. How is the transformation of Indigenous lands into ranches and farmlands made visible in this film?
2. How do immigration and state policies change the built environment? In what ways are immigration and the law visible from the bird’s eye view of this film?
3. How has slavery influenced the demographic landscape and sequential racial dot maps shown in this film?
4. How do changes in transportation technology – in the sequential eras of the canal, the railroad, the highway, the airport, and now the internet – impact how people settle and distribute themselves across the built environment?



1. Steven Manson, Jonathan Schroeder, David Van Riper, Tracy Kugler, and Steven Ruggles. IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 17.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS. 2022. http://doi.org/10.18128/D050.V17.0

2. Social Explorer. https://www.socialexplorer.com/

3. U.S. population over time

4. Top ten largest U.S. cities over time

Does the American city need a new “public entrepreneur” like Robert Moses?

Performing winter 2022 at The Shed in Hudson Yards is Straight Line Crazy, a two-act play about Robert Moses. He was New York City’s leading planner from the 1930s through 1960s, responsible for 35 highways, 12 bridges, 658 playgrounds and over 2 million acres of parks. Since the publication of Robert Moses’s 1974 biography The Power Broker by Robert Caro, Moses has been variously remembered for the thousands of projects he completed, admired for those public parks that brought communities together, hated for his proposal to carve an expressway through Lower Manhattan, and despised for those infrastructure projects that divided non-White communities.
Act one builds up Robert Moses as the Oxford-Columbia educated planner but with slight populist tendencies in his construction of Jones Beach and hundreds of playgrounds. This script for public consumption is of course incomplete without the mandatory repetition – originating from The Power Broker – that bridges over the access roads to public beaches were too short for buses of Black people to pass under.
Act two takes down Moses by trotting through the usual history with mentions of the 1960s Cross Bronx Expressway. Out of 250,000 people displaced citywide for “slum clearance” and “urban renewal” projects, that highway alone displaced some 40,000 people – mostly tenements of working-class immigrants. In the final scene, a young Black architect employed in Moses’s office repeats James Baldwin’s 1963 claim that “urban renewal means … Negro removal” and confronts Moses saying that her family and everyone she knows was displaced for the Cross Bronx.


Animation of the path of the Cross Bronx Expressway before and after

That a city planner should be the subject of an off-Broadway play speaks to the enduring power of Robert Moses in the public imagination. Robert Moses succeeded in a profession now weighed down by paperwork and bureaucracy. In his complete vision of a city and ability to execute projects in face of the odds, Robert Moses represents the total power many planners and architects today secretly – or not so secretly – wished they had. Like him or hate him, we cannot seem to forget him.
Since the 1960s civil rights movement, the public judgement on Robert Moses has become clear. The public is now deeply and rightly skeptical of designing cities around cars, highways, and public housing towers. For me to say I am theoretically from “The Projects” immediately brings to the public’s mind images of poor Black and non-White neighbors confined to decaying brick towers set in barren landscapes of poverty and incarceration. Under Robert Moses, New York City completed upwards of 100,000 units of public housing set in near identical towers.
In the play’s closing minutes, activist urbanist Jane Jacobs turns to the audience and announces: “Robert Moses’s plans to demolish Greenwich Village were stopped. But visit that neighborhood today and you will see gentrification has exiled from the community the very artists and small businesses that had fought to save their homes. We activists succeeded, but not in the way we had hoped.”
Stepping out from The Shed after the play, the towers and shopping malls of Hudson Yards surrounded me, acres of glass and luxury shops for handbags, watches, and clothes with not a bodega or homeless person in sight. Hudson Yards is, after all, publicly accessible but privately owned public space. Who can and cannot use it depends on the whims of Vornado, the company that owns the complex. A project like Hudson Yards – and the thousands of soulless skyscrapers like it that now appear in Manhattan and every major world city – is a direct product of the 1960s resistance to Robert Moses that began on the human-scale streets of the Greenwich Village.
If government is the problem and Robert Moses the racial symbol of what happens when government goes too far, then government cannot be counted on and cannot be trusted to provide the solutions for our time. Affordable housing, healthcare, internet, water, parks, even prisons, all these services and more are now provided by private markets. Affordable housing policies, too, require that new developers of luxury units set aside a fraction as affordable housing. In the trickle-down philosophy that “a rising tides lifts all boats,” the construction of affordable housing hinges on the success of luxury housing. To propose that only the state should be empowered to provide these services is – to follow the logic of Fox, CNN, and similar mainstream commentators – Socialism.


In his 1981 inaugural address, Ronald Reagan summed up the new political philosophy he planned for the nation: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. [….] The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.”
Yet, for Reagan to condemn the likes of Robert Moses as “an elite group,” society has come to rely on a new set of masters in private markets and private equity – un-elected forces more powerful than Robert Moses. Global charities shuddered when Bill and Melinda Gates divorced, for fear that their divorce would spell the end of their non-profit that donates billions to charity. The mainstream media shuddered again when Elon Musk bought Twitter, for fear that new ownership would empower conservatives, Donald Trump, and liberals alike to spread misinformation. The retreat of government from public life mirrors growing income inequality, a worsening climate crisis, rising cost of living, and critical infrastructure projects that can never quite seem to get off the ground.
Planners, politicians, and activists now comfort themselves in the belief that we have “learned from history.” In an attempt to reconnect communities, efforts in Detroit, Seattle, Rochester, Boston, and across the country are demolishing the very highway projects from the likes of Robert Moses that once divided communities. Progress has been slow and funding hard to unlock in an age of austerity. In abandoning the philosophy of Robert Moses, we have also abandoned the very tools of government through which to keep people like Robert Moses in check. This is the key problem with modern liberalism, particularly the variety endemic to liberal college campuses and the State of California: It condemns public housing projects and state-driven urban renewal projects; it also condemns gentrification and private control of public space, public water, and public goods. And yet, the solution to corporate gentrification is an aggressive set of government polices that defends and builds more public housing. We need modern day policies to stitch communities back together that are as powerful and as aggressive as those policies that divided them.
The lesson to learn from Robert Moses is not that he was a bad planner, a “racist,” or a car enthusiast. The lesson to learn is that there will be inevitable power asymmetries in society, but that we have the power to choose our masters. In the end, Robert Moses was pushed out of power in 1968 by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller; the political winds had changed and with it the power brokers. In the end, Robert Moses died in 1981 with only $50,000 in assets to his name; Reagan had just been elected president, and Trump Tower was under construction. Six years later, Donald Trump would write in The Art of the Deal where, among many topics and real estate advice, he described his power to serve the public good through private enterprise. As Robert Moses rebuilt Central Park’s dozens of playgrounds and public spaces in the 1930s, Trump would rebuild the park’s Wollman Rink in the 1980s as publicly subsidized but privately owned “public” space. Trump assessed his work and the “public” spaces he created with taxpayer subsidies: “It was a simple, accessible drama about the contrast between governmental incompetence and the power of effective private enterprise. [….] During most of the construction, the city stayed out of our way – in large part because I instructed my men to keep park officials off the site. When they did try to interfere, it inevitably turned into disaster.” (link) The reach of today’s corporate power brokers in un-elected office is more powerful than Robert Moses ever was, and the public’s mechanisms to control them remains unclear. Nothing less than the future of democracy is in the balance.


David and Goliath

Who Owns Newark? A Case Study of One Building


“Between 2017 and 2020, 2,500 homes – more than 47 percent of the city’s one-to-four unit buildings – were sold to institutional buyers. In Newark, many of the properties were bought by completely anonymous investors, prompting the title of a report from Rutgers University law school, Who Owns Newark? Transferring Wealth from Newark Homeowners to Corporate Buyers.
As documented in this 73-page report, anonymous shell companies are now purchasing majorities of Newark homes and commercial spaces. Properties that Newark’s Black and Hispanic residents would otherwise own are now going to absentee landlords and invisible owners. The higher rate of absentee ownership is directly linked to rent increases and higher rates of eviction, particularly of poor and middle-class Black families. (source)
Just two of these several thousand properties are located at 569 and 571-577 Broad Street. Their ambiguous and hidden ownership mirrors the larger transfer of inter-generational wealth out of Newark. A case study of just these two properties parallels one for one concerns identified in the report Who Owns Newark? (source)
The two-story building at 571-577 Broad Street sold in 2019 for 4.2 million to a company named 569 Broad, LLC (source). No information is available about this LLC, aside from its business address: 400 Kelby Street, 14th Floor, Fort Lee, NJ. The only other company cross-listed at this same address is Cross River Bank with assets totaling 9.9 billion. As identified in the Rutgers report, business owners often create LLCs and shell companies to hide the full extent of their holdings.
The three-story building at 569 Broad Street sold in 2022 for 4.25 million to a company named 569-571 Broad, LLC (source) No other information is available, aside from the owner’s business address: 831 Bedford Ave, #515. This appears to be a fifth-floor unit in a private apartment building with security bars on all windows up to the top floor. A public database search of businesses registered in New York City and New York State reveals no licensed companies operating out of this address.
Within the same few months that the new owner acquired both properties, all small business owners were evicted or their leases were not renewed. Both buildings, which were majority occupied as early as three years ago, are now abandoned. This could be a case of manufactured blight and manufactured decline, as the new owner is now claiming both buildings are too decayed to save and must be demolished. The ejected minority-owned businesses include: 1) Nujoom’s Hookah Lounge, 2) Seventy Sixes Barber Shop, 3) Las Delicias De Mi Gente Cafe, 4) Ahio Immigration Law Office, 5) Goddess Lounge Salon & Spa, 6) Subway Sandwich, 7) Lan Mark Juice & Kitchen, and 8) Panda Chinese Restaurant.


The question remains: Who bought these properties? Who is the owner? We still do not know. However, as revealed as a footnote in documents submitted for the October 3 Central Planning Board meeting, both properties are owned by the same developer, a certain Israel Weiss from Ocean View Management (source). This company has no website, no public business profile, and no list of past projects they have completed. In fact, the company has almost zero presence in internet search results. Despite remaining almost invisible, the developer is now proposing to build a 45-story skyscraper at this location. In a city with median family income 37K, 80% of the 344 units will be for incomes upwards of 100K, while the remaining 20% will be for incomes between 80K and 100K. Who will live here? Certainly not current Newark residents! Normally, projects this large and ambitious come from developers with visible public profiles and track records of previous skyscrapers.
Over five public meetings that Mr. Weiss convened with the city and with James Street Commons residents, not once did he show his face over 15 hours of Zoom. The developer still remains for most intents and purposes anonymous and invisible, pulling the strings behind the scenes and directing his lawyer Calvin Souder to speak for him by text message communication during meetings.
However, further research reveals Mr. Weiss’s 2014 interview (source) discussing techniques of rent collection as a landlord for BHI Properties in Columbia, NJ.[1] A 2014 article described the trend in and near Columbia, NJ of outside investors buying up hundreds of homes that would otherwise go to homeowners and converting these units from homes to rental properties. This is identical to the trend Newark now sees in 2022. From the article: “BHI Properties set up shop in 2005 when a New York City investor in the company noticed how cheap housing was in the historic town. Israel Weiss is managing the most rentals in Columbia.” (source)
In a story as old as this country, renters do not build up home equity to have a stake and property rights in the communities where they live. Add to this histories of redlining since the 1930s which, as documented by legal scholar Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law, systematically denied non-White Americans the opportunities and financing they deserved for homeownership. The continuing failure to give Black and urban Americans equal opportunities for home ownership and self-determination continues this history of racialized space. As Mr. Weiss clarified in his interview, renting to cash-strapped communities is more profitable than selling homes to them: “The rent those people are paying are higher than what a homeowner would have paid in mortgage. So they got to earn it somewhere. Obviously, they’re earning it and paying their rent every month.”
Who is this developer? James Street Commons and Newark residents do not know. One thing, though, remains certain: The developer does not want us to know him. The question remains: Why?


[1] There are several people in New Jersey by the name Israel Weiss. This Israel Weiss is to the best of my research the same Israel Weiss as the person behind this project.

Mapping Manhattan Chinatown’s Public Realm

Created with architect and urbanist Stephen Fan for City as Living Lab
Funded by the University of Michigan’s Rackham Program in Public Scholarship


View full size image.

Chinatown’s Public Realm

Along Mott Street, boxes of fruits and vegetables from the US, Latin America, and China flow from the private open storefronts and onto the public sidewalks and curbs. Forklifts navigate around crates and delivery trucks as vendors, residents, tourists, and shoppers–from regional Asian restaurant owners to West-African immigrants–animate the narrow walkways. After business hours, private produce stands become public places to sit, chat, people-watch, or nap as a sidewalk masseuse sets up two chairs on the public sidewalk to provide his private services.
Away from the commercial corridors, teenagers sit in circles sipping on bubble tea on the Pace High School track while senior citizens slap playing cards on a makeshift table along the track perimeter. Inside the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, teachers begin their Chinese language class while protesters in Columbus Park call for ending violence against Asian Americans.
In creating this map, we hope to stimulate conversations about how public space can be better used, designed, managed, and reimagined: to inspire action in shaping a more resilient and inclusive public realm.

Read the map in English PDF.

Read the map in Chinese PDF. 阅读简体中文版


This map illustrates the public/private uses/spaces of Manhattan Chinatown’s pedestrian life. The map is divided into two sections: the upper depicts public spaces, and the lower section private spaces. From left to right are a spectrum of private to public uses.
In consultation with Chinatown residents and based on a series of walking tours and community forums, we developed the themes and activities shown on this map. We were inspired from reading Jane Jacobs and Michael Sorkin’s descriptions of street life and the delicate balance of public vs. private uses that play out on the city sidewalks. We hope this map will be a classroom and community resource to equip the public with a language and questions to interrogate their own built environments.
Below are scenes from a community event we held in summer 2021. Chinatown residents were invited to annotate an early draft of our map with their experiences and memories of the community.




Chinese music: Feng Yang (The Flower Drum)



Newark Changing: Mapping neighborhood demolition, 1950s to today

Click to launch interactive mapping experience.


Newark Changing is a first-of-its-kind visual encyclopedia of 2,400 photo comparisons of almost every street corner​​​, home, and building ​​demolished by urban renewal and the social forces behind urban decay.​ Through an interactive and text-searchable historic map, any visitor can travel in time to explore their street and their building as it appeared in the period 1959-68 vs. today. Thousands of old street photos are brought to life with contemporary 360-degree panoramic photos of the same street scenes today, taken from identical camera angles to the old photos. This is the most extensive collection of photo comparisons past and present ever assembled for any American city.
Newark Changing reveals the scale and devastation of urban renewal, not from the aerial perspective of the city planner’s map but from the human perspective of the street corner and neighborhood. Tens of thousands of individual streets, homes, apartments, churches, and Jewish, Black, and Italian-owned businesses in Newark were “redlined” in the 1930s and deprived of investment. Most of these neighborhoods today have been bulldozed for interstate highways, universities, hospitals, and corporate investments in real estate. Billions in taxpayer money (adjusted for today’s value with inflation) was spent in the period 1945 to 1967 to demolish at least 10,000 buildings, displacing 50,000 people, 65-77% of whom were Black. At the same time, the migration of people and jobs away from urban centers deprived cities like Newark of the industrial employment base they once had. Decades after the 1967 rebellion, Newark still struggles to confront and overcome decades of harm inflicted on the city by de-industrialization and population loss to the suburbs.
Street scenes can be browsed by interactive map, by neighborhood, by subject, by street, or by the public institution responsible for demolition. Visitors can thus travel in time to explore today’s empty fields, parking lots, and desolate streetscapes for the vibrant neighborhoods they were before the automobile age.

Launch interactive mapping experience >

A park without trees creates a city without history.

Harriet Tubman Square has the largest and most impressive collection of old-growth trees in Downtown Newark. The oldest trees are over 100 feet high, four-feet diameter at the trunk, and up to 150 years old. The City of Newark’s current proposal is to cut every single tree in our park. The only historical precedent for this is the 1960s project that killed every tree in Military Park to build the parking garage now buried beneath. Based on details and architectural plans revealed through an Open Public Records Act request, this animation shows what is planned for our park:


Read the plans for the park.

Read our analysis of these plans.



We cheer for the historic Harriet Tubman Park for a new, prosperous, and most of all just Newark.
However, nobody should even imagine cutting down these 66 century-old trees, oaks, elms, sycamores, all of which represent our history and particularly African-American experience. In America, trees symbolize both freedom and brutal oppression, should any sensible person forget. Unlike any historic treasures – architectural remnants, shriveled old maps, aged documents, or battled artifacts – these trees are among our most valuable historic icons, standing tall for our children.
Tubman embodied the notion of reclaiming the symbolism of trees and woods as tools of freedom in the black tradition. In the antebellum America, abolitionists always voiced lyrics about glorious trees that bore the fruit of freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “Even if I knew tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plan my apple tree.” Tubman was famous for knowing the terrain of trees, woods, and swamps along her journey to freedom. In Tubman’s biography by Sarah Bradford, the black Moses said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold though the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
On the other hand, Billie Holiday sang about fruits produced by these trees: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swing in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/ …Here is a strange and bitter crop.” The blood of black men, women, and children who refused to remain silent, and who deserve justice, life, liberty, and love, over the hate that surround them.
Last year, Rutgers Newark restored the history and voices of Frederick Douglass in the Historic James Street Commons. Let us not forget, Douglas also said, “If Americans wished to partake of the tree of knowledge, they would find its fruit bitter as well as sweet.” It is unimaginable that Tubman will allow these venerable trees of knowledge to be annihilated.

The Time Columbia Built an Artificial Moon in Low Library


Low Library in 1905


The best definition of a university is, to my mind, a city from which the universe can be surveyed. It is the universe compressed into a city the size of Morningside Heights.
Aesthetically ancient but technologically advanced, Low Library rose to this challenge in the 1890s. Buried within hundreds of tons of Milford granite, Indiana limestone, and the unchanging architecture of antiquity were the latest technologies: electricity, steam heating, Corliss steam engines, and internal plumbing in a time when hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers still used outhouses and made less than five dollars a day. Flushing toilets – also known as crappers after Thomas Crapper who perfected their flush mechanism – were also a relatively new consumer product. It has always surprised me how the bathroom stalls at Low Library are divided by marble partitions of the highest quality that must weigh several hundred pounds each. Low Library was indeed built at a time when toilets were something to celebrate, in addition to books of course.
The goal of a great library was to collapse the universe into the size of a room. From the dome’s center was suspended a seven-foot-diameter white ball, which Scientific American described in 1898 as “Columbia’s artificial moon.” So that students could read by moonlight under a canopy of stars, this moon was illuminated against a dome painted dark to resemble the night sky. So in awe was Scientific American that they devoted as much page space to describing Low Library as to documenting the mechanics of this moon with mathematical formulas. With no other point of reference except candles, scientists calculated Columbia’s moon as equivalent in power to 3,972 candles.


From April 1898 issue of Scientific American


The only trouble was the lightbulbs’ carbon filament could only burn for 2.5 hours before “Columbia’s artificial moon” went dark. Scientists had not yet perfected the technologies of light. As a result, Columbia needed to replace the carbon filaments daily and could only illuminate the universe between the hours of 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. And yet, in line with Columbia’s Latin motto “In lumine tuo videbimis lumen” (In your light we see the light), Low Library was flanked by the emerging research departments of the global research university: physics, chemistry, mathematics, mining, engineering, and architecture. Then as now, these fields were seen as the frontiers of human knowledge.
For all the university’s focus on science, its core is built on the art and literature of antiquity. Low Library’s walls are several feet thick, thicker than was necessary in 1890s America that had moved on from heavy stone construction to steel-frame skeletal structures for skyscrapers and railroad stations. From Scientific American: “The imposing pile which forms the home of the college library looks down upon the great metropolis of the New World with something surely of the same pride with which the Parthenon of old surveyed the ancient Athenian city.” America – flush with wealth after conquering indigenous peoples in the American west – saw itself as inheriting the values of ancient Greece and Rome. New York, the American empire’s economic capital, needed cultural and intellectual symbols of power to match. Low Library was this symbol.


Civilization at left: Harper’s Weekly: The Journal of Civilization featured Low Library on its front cover
Colonialism at right: Scientific American described Low Library’s construction on the same page as an article about tree stump removal in the American west


Part of the ambition – and also hubris – of Low Library was the desire to bring all knowledge under one roof. From the reference desk in the dome’s center, librarians could, in the sweep of the eye, survey the entire collection. Curved reading desks were arranged in rings around this centerpiece, like the orbits of planets that circled the sun. From the reference desk beneath the dome’s “starry firmament on high” came the source of all knowledge and all power, as if the library were a planetarium of Biblical proportions.
Rather than the church altar as visual centerpiece, like the altar in the Roman Pantheon on which Low Library was modeled, the mechanical moon and the quiet, methodical work of librarians were the visual centers of attention. Low Library’s architectural form – historically associated with religion – was adapted to new uses as a temple of reason. By contrast, Columbia University’s chapel was only an afterthought, built years later and barely visible from the College Walk. While the Gothic university chapel was the visual centerpiece of traditional universities, the library was the symbolic center of Columbia’s campus. This was a campus “made in the image of” the modern research university. The pursuit of truth was given architectural form and made its home in the university campus.

Low Library’s moon weighing 400 to 500 pounds was removed in 1965

Columbia had fewer than one million books in the 1890s, in contrast to over 13 million books today shelved across dozens of libraries. As industrialization in the image of Henry Ford’s moving assembly line spread to other fields like publishing, the printing and selling of books became cheaper. The market was flooded with books, and Columbia’s Low Library – built for a rarified time when books were more expensive – became too small. The collections soon outgrew their intended home, prompting the construction of Butler Library. The Butler stacks – lined with thousands of metal shelves, accessible by only one entrance behind a security desk, and organized by the Dewey Decimal System – symbolize the mechanization of knowledge. If Low Library resembles a temple of reason, the fireproof stacks of Butler Library resemble a bank vault. By the 1920s, many of the same technologies employed in the design of bank vaults were also employed in the design of libraries. The names of dozens of Columbia spaces named after wealthy donors also attest to the fact that architectural form follows finance. Columbia’s campus, although built in the eternal image of ancient Rome, was funded with New York fortunes made and lost in the speculative bubbles of Wall Street.
Except as an event space, Low Library’s rotunda has remained empty for decades. But the unmet challenge of adapting an ancient library to new uses should not be read as a failure. Architecture must serve the university’s vision. Architecture must make the university’s ideals of tolerance, diversity, and free speech visible in stone, metal, and wood. As much as Low Library represented one way of thinking, its monumental emptiness symbolizes a university that has moved on to include new voices in an expanded definition of the universe, such as women and other groups excluded from higher education for most of American history. The Core Curriculum, too, once limited to the literature of Greece and Rome now lives across departments and includes global voices. In ways both technological and metaphorical, the university has advanced beyond a vision of the universe illuminated for only two hours per day.
The university Columbia has become is radically different from President Seth Low’s time. It is culturally richer for these changes and for the 1968 protests occupying Low Library and Hamilton Hall. Low Library – the symbolic and visual center of Columbia’s campus – might have taken a few years to build, but the goal of building a university requires the labor of generations of scholars, administrators, and activist students. Like the universe, the university was not built in a day.


Low Library Dome Interior, from Wikimedia Commons

Racializing Space

Why does the American city remain so spatially and racially divided?



Why does the American city remain so spatially and racially divided decades after the 1960s civil rights movement? Practices like redlining, restrictive covenants based on race, segregated public transit, and literacy tests for voting have all been “abolished,” at least on paper and in theory. However, events since spring 2020 have returned to the public consciousness a reality that had always been obvious to millions of Americans living in poverty and in urban areas: that this country remains divided and that the racism of Jim Crow, rather than disappearing, has taken new forms.
Drawing from the perspectives of architecture, planning, sociology, and history, this conversation considers the evidence for how the American city and suburb – specifically Detroit – remain spatially divided and what steps must be taken to fulfill the dream of an egalitarian metropolis. Panelists include:
Karyn Lacy, professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Michigan
LaDale Winling, professor of American history at Virginia Tech
Robert Fishman, professor of history at the University of Michigan’s college of architecture and urban planning

We cannot design our way out of this crisis.


Design is supposed to solve the problems of pandemic and climate crisis. This is flawed thinking. The apostles of architecture, technology, and design confront crisis with what they call “design thinking.” They claim they can design our world out of crisis through new technologies: sustainable product packaging, vegetable-based meat substitutes, paper bags instead of plastic, wind and solar instead of coal and oil. Meanwhile, the global super rich build space ships that will allow them to one day escape the mess they made of our planet. “Design thinking” becomes a way of escaping this world entirely.
The techno-optimism of “design thinking” fails to recognize that “design thinking” is itself a poison. The problem is not with design per se. Rather, the problem is with the corporate power structures in which “design thinking” operates. They promise electric cars will replace fossil-fueled cars that pollute. They promise New-Orleans-style levees and elevated houses built on stilts will reduce property damage in flood zones. They promise improved artificial intelligence will stop the virus of online hate speech. They promise we are just one more consumer purchase away from happiness. But this techno-optimism does not address the deeper questions: Why are we not designing a society in which people do not need cars? Why are we building in flood zones in the first place? Why must the profit model of social media networks rely on users spending as must time as possible on their platforms, even when boosting engagement results in exposing users to hate speech? The limited palette of “design thinking” overlooks systemic solutions that require fundamental, but overdue, lifestyle changes.
The entrenched powers that be insist on inserting themselves into whatever solution is presented, when the real medicine needed might be a society in which the powers that be do not exist. It should alarm us all that tech company executives, who resist government regulation and changes to their platforms, restrict their own children from using the very platforms they designed. Online retailers now sell devices to help addicts like us spend less time on our phones, which begs the question whether such anti-phone technologies would even be necessary had phones been designed as less addictive from the start. In a 2010 interview, Mark Zuckerberg described that designers must have empathy for the people who use their products. However, if designing products to be addictive to users makes the designer more profit, then a tension is created where the needs of the user and the desires of the designer work at cross-purposes. Unless “design thinking” is uncoupled from motives of pure profit, design alone will not fix a world in crisis.
Take the twisted logic of Shell Oil rebranding itself as a company specializing in “renewables” and “green energy.” This seems to be the equivalent of a drug dealer selling both the drugs that will kill and then cure the addict. Last year, the public relations team at Shell announced that, by 2050, their company will have net-zero emissions. Offshore oilrigs will be carbon neutral because they will be powered by solar panels and wind turbines. What this “design thinking” hides is the deeper reality that no oil rig, no matter how well designed, can be good for our planet’s health or our own.
“Design thinking” innovates within the existing railroad tracks of a consumer society. Why should a tire company design an affordable tire never runs flat? Why should a bottled water company advocate for clean water laws that make tap water safer to drink? Why should a shoe company design a mass-market shoe that never falls apart? The existing market structure rewards profitable behavior and profitable design, which is different from ethical design. The ethical designer is likely to create the very conditions of their unemployment. The shoemaker who sells a shoe that lasts forever has just lost herself a future customer. “Design thinking” is like a railroad track. Innovation is possible within set limits, but the train must move forward. The products of design – be they cars, houses, or phones – must sell and ideally resell to returning customers.
The world needs a design revolution, not more “design thinking.” Maybe a design revolution produces architecture as stable and as lasting as the monuments of ancient Rome. Maybe a design revolution restricts the sophistication of cell phone design to the way phones were in the 1990s, clunky so that we are not tempted to stare at them for endless hours. Maybe a design revolution makes technology so easy to repair and upgrade that users need only buy one device that lasts for life. Is the 1/16th inch reduction in iPhone width really worth the environmental cost of millions of tons of landfill waste? These changes require revolution, not reform. No institution – just as much as no person – can imagine a world in which they do not exist. But that is the way design needs to be. Designers should be like doctors, who treat the patient and send them on their merry way. The doctor who never needs to see their cancer patient again has done their job and done their job well. Maybe a design revolution creates a world with fewer designers and less “design thinking.” And maybe a world with less design will be better place.
It is a strange world indeed where we have the unbelievably complex technology to shoot Jeff Bezos on a rocket to outer space, but we do not have the technology to design Apple phone and laptop chargers that last more than a few months. I have gone through at least a dozen iPhone chargers, all in different colors, shapes, and sizes but none that could last. Designers a century ago predicted that, thanks to “design thinking” and technology improvements, people today would have lives of leisure “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, [and] rear cattle in the evening.” Why Americans are working as hard as ever and are as burdened as ever with debt from their consumer purchases is one of the miracles of modern society. A better world is possible, but that world requires nothing short of revolutionary thinking. The only limit to what is possible is what we think is possible.