Architecture Students Work Hand-in-Hand With Chinese Peers

Architecture Students Work Hand-in-Hand With Chinese Peers

UCLA students visit landmark buildings as part of the China Studio. The Beijing National Stadium on the new Olympic grounds is known as the Bird's Nest for a crosshatch design that imitates nature. (Photos from 2007 visit courtesy of Ben Refuerzo)

In the China Studio program run by UCLA's Department of Architecture and Urban Design, bicultural student teams design important structures. Back at UCLA, young Chinese architects share their perspectives and get grilled in English. It's not your typical exchange program.

There's no territory. We're all together and we let our barriers down.

This May in the northern Chinese city of Tangshan, where 85 percent of buildings were destroyed in the devastating earthquake of 1976, a team of 11 Chinese and eight UCLA student architects designed a ceramics center that, if completed, will provide gallery, studio, and living space to local artists. The structure would be over 20,000 square feet.

Architecture curricula and exchange programs often include tours of foreign cities, but the extensive collaboration between UCLA and Tianjin University, in a program known as the China Studio, in is unique in the field. The UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design has run the program now for three years, also hosting Chinese students here on campus. This year the UCLA Confucius Institute pitched in $750 per U.S. student for travel expenses.

the Suitcase House

Gary Chang's Suitcase House is one of 12 ultramodern houses designed by Asian architects as part of the Artists' Commune Project.

This year's program began for UCLA's participants with five days in residence at Tianjin University. The group then traveled near the Great Wall to the Commune, a collection of houses by famous international architects, to hold their final review. The final stop was Beijing, where UCLA students got a preview of the Olympic Village and its landmark stadium and aquatic center known as the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube.

At month's end the UCLA students returned to campus with eight of their Chinese counterparts. Finally, on Tuesday, June 10, 2008, the Chinese students participated in a formal review of their design work by a jury of Los Angeles-based practicing architects. Impressively, the Chinese students presented their projects to the jury in English with good command of the field's specialized terminology.

Tangshan is located in the Hebei Province in northern China and is known as a center of ceramic art, from fine bone china to large public sculptures. More than 30 years after the earthquake, the city is still actively rebuilding.

Professor Ben Refuerzo of the UCLA Department of Architecture emphasizes the tremendous opportunities for cross-cultural understanding that come with designing a building together. He's searching for sponsorship to ease the costs of study for Chinese participants.

When the students come together, he says, "There's no territory. We're all together and we let our barriers down." He adds that the language barrier between students actually focuses them on communicating about work and removes any fakeness in their interactions.

Tianyou Pan, a student from Tianjin University, agreed about the program's value: "Through the exchange program and interaction with the American students, I feel quite inspired by the different design styles. The Chinese tend to be more conservative and practical, while the Americans tend to resort to their own feelings and inspiration. After all, architectural design is an art in general." 

The China Studio presentations fit nicely into the context of "Rumble," the Architecture Department's end-of-year exhibition. Through June 14, "Rumble" featured projects completed by students during 30-week research studios, as well as special topics studios and technology seminars. The exposition included 6,500 square feet of year-end studio and program installations that redefine the provocative opportunities confronting the next generation of architects.

Published: Friday, June 20, 2008