Joint studio with Asian universities inspires students
Their designs may help revitalize Hangzhou, a city that is the most popular internal tourist destination in China.
The students enrolled in Professor Mario Gandelsonas' joint studio class are working with about 20 peers at Hong Kong University and Tongji University in Shanghai on the project.
Gandelsonas, who is also director of international programs for the School of Architecture, initiated the joint studio program with the two universities six years ago. Each year, the students work in parallel on the same project and share their results with each other at various points along the way.
The specific goal of this joint studio is to redesign Hangzhou's Wulin Square, including plans for a new cultural center. The city, which was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, is on the shores of West Lake, a large, picturesque body of water surrounded by hills, woods and garden pavilions. While Hangzhou is the political and economic center of Zhejiang Province, most tourists come to enjoy the beauty of the nearby lake. During the last decade, the city has been "modernized" with high-rise structures that some feel do not relate to its unique geographical and historical context. City officials have decided that a redesigned main square should be the first step in implementing a new urban concept in Hangzhou.
Dimensions of space and time
While the spatial dimension of the project is certainly important, the temporal dimension is equally critical, according to Gandelsonas. The students needed to consider how to organize the flow of 17 million annual visitors, most of whom are eager to visit the lake.
"We were interested in approaching the city as a complex system of flows and events connected to a vast global network," said Jason Johnson, a second-year M.Arch. student. "In order for this connection to be made, the existing urban fabric had to be analyzed and ultimately restructured. The design of the 'square' and the 'building' became secondary."
According to Johnson, a site subjected to mass tourism has its own architectural needs. "Mass tourism challenges the inherent permanence and stability of traditional urban planning," he said. "Conventional methods become futile in a world demanding spontaneity, temporality and instant gratification. There exists a zone of tension between necessarily fixed systems of mass transit, motorways, etc., and the flexible worlds of shopping, socializing, etc. Within this zone lies the potential for fantastic architectural possibilities."
Add to the challenges of mass tourism the challenges of designing for a non-Western culture and Princeton's architecture students really got inspired.
"I think the most challenging aspect for this studio has been the difficulty of understanding another culture," said Felicia Berger, a second-year M.Arch. student. "Having been educated in Western institutions, our design sensibilities are mired in Western perceptions of architectural history and space making."
Illustrating this point, Professor Gandelsonas explained that despite the existence of world landmark Tiananmen Square, Chinese urban design has no tradition of a town square -- that concept arrived after communism in 1949. "So a big question for our studio is 'Why a square? What do you need a square for?'"
Confronting such cross-cultural questions from a unique perspective is Juan Du, a Chinese-born first-year M.Arch. student at Princeton. "Even though I received my elementary schooling in China, my architectural education has been strictly European and American," she said. "This is a treasured opportunity for me to engage Chinese architecture, both past and present, within an established framework. If there are any insights that I might have due to my background, it is perhaps a mindset that reaches back into China's rich cultural and architectural heritage, and a keen interest that extends to the future of Chinese cities."
This fall's studio is organized in two stages, with a visit to China as the midpoint. The trip occurred over fall break, when the Princeton students joined their counterparts to explore the Hangzhou site as well as other locations. Before going to China, the Princeton students researched aspects of Chinese architecture and culture, such as examining Chinese gardens and producing a set of analytical and interpretive drawings. While in China, the students visited various gardens, including those in Suzhou, which are admired for their fusion of nature and architecture.
After the preliminary research stage at Princeton, Berger found it illuminating to learn which assumptions worked when actually in China. "In certain instances our assumptions proved to be accurate, and in other cases they were entirely flawed," she said. "I believe that it was important to make these incorrect assumptions, as it is in those cases when we were wrong that I think our individual arguments will be strengthened."
In the weeks since the trip, the students have been busy working with what they learned on site to transform Hangzhou's square. "Our visit to China was truly a unique experience, not only for what we learned about the site specifically, but more importantly, for what we learned about Chinese culture and architecture," said Berger. "It is the nature of the site and the people that cannot be conveyed by any other means except by being in the actual place."
Undoubtedly, one of the most valuable aspects of this joint studio is sharing the thinking behind varying design approaches presented by students from three different educational and cultural backgrounds. Describing the contrasts, Gandelsonas said: "Hong Kong is a pragmatic place and the students from there look at the project from a development point of view. The students from Shanghai are very aware of what's going on architecturally in the rest of the world, and while they want to modernize, they don't want to copy the West. And our Princeton students are very theoretically minded and interested in asking conceptual questions."
Ralph Lerner, dean of the School of Architecture, said there are two main educational benefits of the joint studio: "The studio introduces students to the global conditions of architectural practice, which have changed so much over the last 15 years. It also introduces students to the critical contemporary problem of developing architectural strategies for conditions outside of their own culture."
Once the designs are completed, they will be submitted to the College of Architecture and Planning at Tongji University. Since China does not have architectural firms, architecture faculty at universities also are commissioned to design projects around the country. The work of the students from the joint studio will be consulted for ideas.
Over the years, Princeton students and their peers have worked on a variety of projects through the joint studio. Three were in Shanghai: the extension of the Bund, a boulevard on the west bank of the Huangpu River; the renovation of a Catholic church; and the restoration of a synagogue. The other projects were the design of a contemporary museum in Beijing and a cultural center in Hong Kong. All project sites for the joint studio are selected by the Chinese.
With the powerful impact of globalization on architecture, Gandelsonas is taking the school's international initiatives to new destinations. Future joint studios will link graduate students from Princeton, Rice University and the University of California-Los Angeles with peers at architectural programs in London, Paris and Barcelona. Another joint studio has been funded by the Lee Foundation and will be inaugurated this spring with the National University of Singapore.