UCLA’s cityLAB at the School of Architecture and Urban Design

Backyard Homes Conceptual Rendering, image courtesy Daly Genik Architects

What makes an architecture school worth consideration are its special programs and initiatives. These programs, often run by a few faculty members, vary from addressing human rights and legal issues to working with local communities to remedy social and economic issues.

’s Architecture and Urban Design (AUD) school has just such a program. Called cityLAB (not to be confused with the student-run, science-based UCLA CityLab), it is in many ways unique to a university setting. Run by founder/director Professor Dana Cuff and co-directed by Professor Roger Sherman. It’s name is well-suited: a laboratory to test ideas and address issues arising from city conditions in ways that cannot be done by profit-driven firms. These issues include housing, commercial revitalization, and community and municipal collaboration. These projects have operated successfully on grants that support not just the work being done by the professors, but by staff and Graduate Student Researchers who are paid to work in all aspects of the projects.

But what is most interesting about UCLA AUD’s CityLab is a brand new initiative beginning next school year. Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it is an program originally borne from a workshop sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. It is entitled “The Urban Turn: Collective Life in Megacities of the Pacific Rim.” It is a grand title with equally ambitious intentions: to study four different megacities in the Pacific Rim and the issues that shape not simply living in the Pacific Rim, but in megacities all over the globe.

Such a formidable task requires the right approach and cityLAB has it. Traditionally, Western discourses have defined The Urban Turn in terms of modernity and capitalism*. Professors Cuff and Sherman have decided on a different approach: to redefine what it can mean by collaborating with experts in different fields. The co-awardees of the grant include Professor Diane Favro from Architecture, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris from Urban Planning and Dean of Public Policy, and Professor Todd Presner from Germanic Languages and Digital Humanities. Says Professor Cuff: “Questions of identity or security can be fruitfully addressed from a wide range of perspectives. If you only think about density, you miss the rich collective lives we live in proximity to one another. With the benefit of history, cultural studies, and the arts, perhaps architects can rethink how we live in cities together.”

Given this, students from all over campus, not just in the architecture department, will be recruited to participate. Indeed, that will be a key factor to its success. The first year’s investigation will involve around two dozen students from the Humanities, urban studies, and the Arts. Students apply through a formal process specifying why they are interested in participating and how their own studies and cityLAB’s Urban Turn initiative are complementary.

It’s quite a new approach in architecture education, one that is practiced at only a few schools worldwide: “We are aiming to engage students in deep collaborations that lead from criticism and interpretation to proposals. The first year we will bring faculty and graduate students together to think about risk and resilience in and Tokyo. In the second year, our focus shifts to Shanghai and urban idenitity; in the third year we will explore Mexico City and density.” The format is also cross-disciplinary, using seminars which non-architecture graduate students are used to, combined with studio-like settings using “digital technologies, mapping, narrative, film, field work, and design interventions as some of the different means we will deploy in these collaborations.” Indeed, one can imagine students and professors from fields such as Asian Languages and Cultures, Comparative Literature, Geography, History, and Public Policy could all successfully enrich the project.

Car-lite vision of Westwood Village, image courtesy Neil Denari Architects

Central to this entire proposition is the concept of intellectual cross-pollination. All participants over the next four years will be exposed to new ways of thinking and making. They will also meet with intellectuals, activists, and designers in their target cities. It’s an opportunity to challenge discursive norms within academic fields, as well as within epistemological norms dictated by national boundaries. Clearly, the opportunities transcend learning design, extending to critical analytical skills and different historical and cultural perspectives.

cityLAB’s Urban Humanities Initiative, image courtesy Jonathan Crisman

Sound interesting? Here are the practicalities: AUD has 14 full-time faculty, and 23 part-time. Together, they guide a little over 200 undergraduate and graduate students. Tuition for residents is $8,309 and $9,669 for undergraduates and graduate students, respectively. For non-residents, the tuition is $28,917 and $24,675. There is also financial aid beyond student loans: cityLAB continues to employ 8 to 10 students as Graduate Student Researchers (GSR’s) who are involved in all aspects of cityLAB’s projects.

*Gyan Prakash, “The Urban Turn,” in Sarai Reader: The Cities of Everyday Life, 2  (2002): 1-6.

Cite: Wing, Sherin. "UCLA’s cityLAB at the School of Architecture and Urban Design" 25 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=348874>