Story by Karen Wong, New Museum deputy director and A+ Awards juror.
Something was afoot on the Columbia University campus last Wednesday. As dusk set in, students of the Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning gathered to launch plastic objects through the top-floor windows of Avery Hall. A source on site reported this surreal Magnolia-like scene, except instead of squishy frogs descending from the sky like in the Paul Thomas Anderson film, you had copies of GSAPP’s 2013 Abstract hurtling through the air.
The Abstract is the all-important year-end document archiving student work chosen by the faculty, and the architects-in-training were none too happy with the latest edition. While 2012’s controversial catalog featured a potato on the cover and three large holes drilled through the book, this year’s was even more daring. Conceived by graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister and edited by GSAPP fabrication director Scott Marble, the 2013 Abstract was nothing more than a cover of nodes, which opened to a plastic tray stamped with a website, where you could then download the "Abstract App."
Students snapped. Never mind the demise of print: This tribe stands stoically entrenched in the smell of ink, in the touch of uncoated paper. They may be reading their news and gossip online, but the Abstract is a sacred cow. It’s a history of record, a proof of their achievement whose final resting place is the Avery Library, widely considered the finest architectural collection in the world—a reputation certainly not lost on the student body.
Adding insult to injury, the only printed text on the cover is: “Be More Flexible Stefan Sagmeister.” (Sagmeister's latest touring exhibition, “The Happy Show,” at MOCA in Los Angeles, poses the question “what is happiness?” Dean Mark Wigley in his Abstract introduction makes an equally touchy-feely case that architecture’s future is founded on trust and optimism in Columbia’s educational process to “redefine the state-of-the-art.”)
So a mini revolt took place, as students scattered their Abstract cases on the lawn: an ironic symbol of youthful rebellion from a generation unwilling to accept the future.
Above: Last year's cover and a screenshot from this year's Abstract App.
But the Abstract App is stunning. At 775MB, it takes 20 minutes to download—and it’s worth the wait. The vertical and horizontal scroll navigation is intuitive. Click on any illustration and it enlarges. And let’s be honest, images look better when they are backlit. The navigation bar at the bottom of the screen allows for filtering by different buckets—Chapters, Instructors, Students, Titles, Semesters, Locations—and the search bar function is, and I hesitate to type this, sexy. There’s substantially more content, and yet the user experience is light and breezy. At one glance, the color-coded table of contents projects a school that is serious, diverse, intense, and fun. It’s an attractive tool for education and a smart one for marketing.
The Abstract App is more than a book. It’s a mini evolution of how to make dense material more accessible and digestible. Anyone can download, and best of all: It’s free.
Middle-aged white men: 1
GSAAP Generation Y: 0