A look into Columbia’s mysterious DeathLab
By Jessica Call
On the website for DeathLab, a project by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, a haunting video of pixelated urban life in miniature loops behind text that reads: “Revolutionizing how we live with death in the city.” The DeathLab, founded by Architecture professor Karla Rothstein, is a response to the ecological, temporal, and philosophical questions posed by death in New York City. According to their website, there are six deaths per hour, 144 deaths per day, 1,008 deaths per week, and 4,320 deaths per month. New York’s five boroughs do not provide the space or technology to sufficiently address these corpses. The DeathLab approaches mortality with close attention to environmental concerns as well as the complexities of ritualism, memorialization, and remembrance. Through intellectually rigorous architectural designs, the Lab is able to approach death as a deeply personal, social incident as well as a public health concern of urban life.
The two most frequently used words on DeathLab’s website seem to be “intimate” and “infrastructure.” The Lab’s projects, according to their website, are the physical embodiment of the “poetry of impermanence.” The projects seek to integrate the reality of death with the daily lives of New Yorkers. They boast names like the “Sacred within Mundane,” in reference to a hybrid memorial-soil separator, as well as “IMPERMANENCE,” a porous, element-sensitive structure meant to hold a corpse’s bone residue. The most ambitious and widely-discussed project is Constellation Park. In the images, which can be found online, a bridge is backlit by an urban night sky and strung with delicate, futuristic pods. At Constellation Park, the pods are short-term shrines for the urban dead. The website features animated people placing mementos and elaborate flower arrangements on the pods. Inside of the pods, like a futuristic tomb, corpses decompose. The gasses released from decomposition power a light show reminiscent of lightning bugs on a summer evening or a Carman dorm adorned with Christmas lights. If successful, the project would be a stunning, although admittedly heavy-handed, symbolic representation of the contradictions of individualism and community implicit in urban life.
The DeathLab’s leaders are well-versed in fermentation, biotransformation, decomposition, and microbes. In addition to science and architecture experts, they consult philosophers and religion experts, particularly Mark Taylor, the chair of the Religion Department at Columbia. The DeathLab’s ideology is a product of a seemingly robust dialogue that is at once academic, sentimental, and hopeful. Interwoven in their grand plans for innovative architectural sites is a respect for some unspoken vow of New Yorkers: even in the face of post-mortem—despite the scarcity of space, the impracticality, and the myriad arguments for the death of the city itself—New Yorkers will find a way to stay within the five boroughs.