A message from Untapped Cities founder, Michelle Young:

Some people change the entire trajectory of your life. For me, Columbia University professor and architect Mojdeh Baratloo was perhaps the single most important figure in my career, and what I’ve never written about before is how Untapped Cities owes much to her.

I launched Untapped New York as a WordPress blog in June 2009, with a short post about a DIY mini golf course in Bushwick built in a vacant lot. In September 2009, I began my graduate program at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in the New York/Paris program (later in Urban Planning). Moji was my urban studies studio teacher.

The way in which I see cities today, how I train our writers to look differently at their everyday urban environment for secret gems, layers of history, the quirks that others miss, comes from Moji’s development of my eye.

She was an early supporter of Untapped Cities, pushing me to do more, to explore my academic studies through the lens of Untapped. Whenever I fell back into complacency with my graduate work, she would call me to say she had been thinking about me. Why make Powerpoint presentations when I could use Untapped Cities as a platform and voice for open source research and public discussion?

I distinctly remember something she told me at a brunch in her Upper West Side apartment. She pulled up Untapped Cities on her laptop and said, you have a specific point of view with this project, do you see that? Looking back, this was the moment that Untapped became more than my own vision. Untapped Cities had the potential to bring people together over a common wonder and exploration of cities. It was my project, but it was for the public. Untapped wrote about cities in a new way, allowing each reader to form his or her own lens, and it was my job to inspire people, one by one, one article at time, to see their cities differently.

Untapped Cities has gone through several redesigns, become a global, crowd-sourced publication, but our voice has remained steadfast. We owe Moji a great debt for seeing Untapped Cities’ potential in its very early, nascent stages and inspiring me to work on it.

Moji was also deeply embedded in the design and planning community, dedicated to the work of local organizations, particularly here in New York City. She was a founding member of Storefront for Art and Architecture. She was also active in the study of shrinking cities, informal settlements and long-term sustainability. There are many Untapped articles Moji directly inspired by connecting us to those in organizations she was involved with: Red Hook Ballfield Food Vendors, the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s e-waste recycling program, the Swept Away exhibit at the MAD Museum.

As the coordinator of Columbia GSAPP’s Urban Design Studio, Moji established a structure that pushes the limits of a traditional academic design studio. She instituted a collaborative teaching model that includes an interdisciplinary team of academics, consultants, community stakeholders, researchers, and program alumni. Consequently, her students have worked with artists, designers, journalists, engineers, economists, scientists, policy advisors, mayors, and CEOs, among others.

I remember the first time she tore apart one of my projects in studio. I had been so sure of myself, having done extremely well in a previous urban design seminar at Columbia. But complacency was not going to be tolerated. Throughout the semester, she motivated us, pushed us, and pulled us out of our comfort zones. Destabilization was the process, but not the goal. We intuitively trusted that we were in a process of transformation, because she was so well attuned to our strengths and weaknesses. Soon, I was building conceptual models out of crazy materials, physically connecting myself to urban processes, which until this point had been a purely intellectual endeavor. I emerged knowing that somehow my whole perspective of understanding urban spaces had been altered and fine-tuned.

The greatest testament to Moji’s passion for teaching is the group known as “Moji’s Kids.” These are the students she brought back, year after year, to be guest critics, co-organizers of conferences she was planning, teaching assistants and more. Some of these students were taught by Moji over 20 years ago. These students are now amongst us, working in New York City government, city planning, non-profit organizations, architecture firms, universities–designing and changing the very city we live in. We have a network amongst us, thanks to Moji, and we knew she was always thinking of us in the multitude of her activities.

Moji was tireless in her passion for teaching, and she molded a generation of design graduates at Columbia University, Parsons, among others. Many of Untapped Cities’ contributors have been her students—architect William Feuerman, Aldo Cherdabayev, Christopher Torres, Joanie Tom, Afzal Khaki, Frank Romo.

The loss of Moji Baratloo this week is a difficult loss for the Columbia University community and everyone she has touched in her life. I hope that Untapped Cities will continue to be a testament to her—her passion for cities, her dedication to shaping how people understand our urban environment. We have been honored with her steadfast support of Untapped Cities and will continuously push to fulfill one of the last things she said about it, “Untapped Cities is just getting better and better.”

4 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Mojdeh Baratloo, architect and Untapped Cities inspiration

  1. My deepest condolences to @Columbia University @Columbia GSAPP UD for the loss of Ar Modjeh Baratloo. Delivered project in how to reduce Crime through Urban & Architecture Recreational Space for @Cypress Hills Verde Summit at East NY. And her stong feedback along with amazing professors, T.A.’s and classmates, has come all the way to Guatemala. Perhaps she made some days and nights with less sleep but reaffirmed a purpose in this world. RIP Moji.

  2. How do you explain the methods by which someone keeps you alive? With a laugh full of affection while shaking her head at your foolishness. With an fierce intensity for her any activity she committed herself too. With a demand that you and everyone else think harder and stop being slightly lazy. With her joy in making any meal special with one or many friends. With her trust in you when she called to say: who do you know that can really help?

    Strangely, I never knew what she was actually doing for any artistic or architectural venture. She always worked with others, especially her former husband, Clif Balch, and her students or former students at Columbia University and elsewhere. I never asked because I did not care. I knew in my soul that without her in the mix, the project would have never happened or never happened like it did.

    Sometime in the last ten years, she formed the company URGe with Justin Garrret Moore, Philip Tidwell and Ward Verbakel. I can’t imagine a better name for her – to urge. She gave the company subtitle: “Envisioning Environment Everyday” and a mission: “URGe brings positive, new and lasting influence to cities and communities” Really, can anyone in the city planning or artistic invention into built environments make a clearer statement of the profession’s goal.

    My first experience with Moji was as a founding boardmember of the
    Storefront for Art and Architecture in 1984. I don’t know if the
    Storefront would have survived the early days without her support and critical thinking. I also wonder if Kyong Park and Shirin Neshat would have had the same careers without her consistent friendship in those days of youth.

    One of my last experiences with Moji was walking along the lower
    Manhattan waterfront with her. She was explaining the changes to the city and waterfront combining aesthetic evaluation with political stories. A one point we encountered an embedded participatory artwork in the concrete. Together we danced following the light pattern. Typical of her to be mentally engaged at the largest scale, but attracted immediately to the intimate invention.

    Here she is again. I was having a very difficult time truly engaging in my writing for Aesthetic Grounds. Now with her death, she directly speaks to remind me that only the work that touches your heart and motivates your head – while making the work – has real self value. And the possibility to be valuable to others.

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