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Master Landscape Architecture Students Travel to China

MLA Students tour the office of BAM in Beijing, China

During a two-week study abroad, 11 Second Year Master of Landscape Architecture students had the opportunity to explore some of the most famous traditional and modern landmarks of Chinese design while being fully immersed in Chinese culture. The trip was led by Assistant Professor Valerie Friedmann with assistance from a recent AU Visiting Scholar, Hongli Zheng, from Beijing Forestry University.

The entrance to BAM

The entrance to BAM

A highlight of the trip was the time spent reconnecting with Auburn MLA Alumni and making new connections with practicing landscape architects in China. During our trip we visited three firms. In Beijing, we visited the office of Ballistic Architecture Machine, known as BAM, where Qing Li (AU MLA ’12) gave an overview of the firms forward-looking and optimistic design philosophy and several of their recent and in-the-works projects.

Qing Li gives an overview of BAM's<br />
current projects and the work.

Qing Li gives an overview of BAM's
current projects and the work.

BAM’s founders met as students at Cornell University. They are Daniel Gass, Allison Daily, and Jacob Schwartz Walker, the son of well-known landscape architects Martha Schwartz and Peter Walker. Their small, intimate office space exhibits their interest in art, material innovation and hands-on creativity. The students were impressed with the display of in-progress design tests—from model mockups to full-scale mosaic detail sketches created with actual cut tile. But it was clear that BAM’s interest is not only in the artistic details. During the tour we learned about the firm’s desire to explore the role of landscape architecture in rapidly changing contemporary urban areas, including the Chinese metropolis. From the BAM website, “Since our founding BAM, our collective idea of nature is gradually changing. As technology continuously shapes our environment, our perception of nature is becoming outdated. These changes are diminishing not only our interaction with nature but also how we value our surroundings. By thinking across artistic and technical fields, BAM reconsiders our civilizations’ concepts of nature. BAM’s goal is to create projects that improve people’s lives, help us value our surroundings, and enable us to move towards a new and healthy relationship to our environment.” These sentiments further enriched the student’s understanding of the challenges faced by landscape architects, especially as we travelled through Shanghai and Beijing, the first and third most populous cities in the world at the time of our visit.

Qing Li has been doing since graduating<br />
from the Auburn MLA program in 2012

Qing Li discusses what she has been doing since graduating
from the Auburn MLA program in 2012.

Qing Li gave an overview of BAM's current projects and the work she has been doing since graduating from the Auburn MLA program in 2012. We left BAM’s colorful, light filled office space filled with fresh coffee (thank you to Bruce, the office manager!) and feeling energized and inspired.

Following our visit to BAM, Hui Shi (AU MLA ’16) helped us coordinate a visit with his previous employer, Turenscape. At Turenscape we learned about their pioneering work in Chinese regional planning and ecological design innovation. Turenscape employees over 600 professionals and their suburban Beijing office, with professionally framed and mounted project posters lining the multi-floor office space, has the feel of a well-established institution of design.

Stanley Lung gives MLA Students an<br />
overview of projects at Turenscape

Stanley Lung gives MLA Students an
overview of projects at Turenscape

Stanley Lung, Turenscape’s Director & Associate of International Design and International Business Development, gave us an in-depth tour of the Turenscape complex explaining the challenges and outcomes of each project we viewed. Turenscape’s founder, Doctor and Professor Kongjian Yu, and his employees have been recognized with over ten ASLA awards since 2001 as well as many other Chinese and International design awards. The sheer scale of Turenscape’s operation, the cheerful workspaces replete with potted plants and fish tanks, and the skateboards, and acoustic guitars tucked around employee’s desks impressed the students and a left lasting impression of one of China’s most renowned landscape architecture practices.

Once in Shanghai we visited Z+T Studio, where we were graciously welcomed by founders Dong Zhang and Ziyang Tang. Dong and Ziyang have cultivated an impressive project list, with their Eco-Campus at the Vanke Research recognized with a 2014 ASLA Honor Award. Z+T Studio has the feel of a design workshop with 3D printers, an extensive material samples wall, and a hefty music-making sculpture prototype adjacent to the reception desk.

Z+T’s founders have a desire to incorporate playful, surprising and interactive elements into their projects. When they couldn’t find a local shop or artist to collaborate with, they decided to open their own Art Studio where creations such as the musical sculpture could be prototyped, built, and then installed in the landscape. We were all inspired by the firm’s spirited approach to participatory design as well as their innovation and work ethic.

Auburn MLA Student Zhan Xie (’17) at Z+T Studio

Auburn MLA Student Zhan Xie
(’17) at Z+T Studio

Z+T Studio also wanted to hear from us and learn about the Auburn MLA Program. Professor Friedmann gave an overview of the MLA program and presented work from the Fall 2015 studio—work created by the students on the tour. After the presentation the employees at Z+T Studio and our students compared notes and design ideas and software workflow tips. We felt a real connection with the founders and employees at Z+T and know that if we are ever back in Shanghai we will stop in to say "hi!"

The students repeatedly mentioned the firm tours as the most informative aspect of the trip. Student Ryan Bowen (AU MLA ’17) appreciated the variety of office types we visited: “Having the opportunity to visit both a small firm and a large firm really allowed me to see the different atmosphere and collaboration that each firm style offered, and put that experience towards nailing down what style I want to pursue.” Bowen goes on to say, “It was really eye opening to see how fast the design/construction process is in China compared to the United States. Most projects go from beginning concepts to constructed within an eight or twelve month timeframe.”

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3D printed scale model and
fabrication prototype of a
sculptural stair and water
feature at Z+T Studio

The success of our trip was largely due to help from our partner universities in Beijing, but also our Chinese alumni and current Chinese international students. One of our current students, Jingting Li (AU MLA ’17) reports, “Even as a student from China, I still thought we had very great experience during the trip, which expanded my horizon and gave me a different point of view to reconsider the development of Chinese landscape architecture.” In reference to the firm tours, Li says, “Such new office culture opened our eyes towards our field.” Li goes on to credit the trip with giving her a sense of camaraderie: “The most important part is we considered each other as our family members during that trip, which was valuable. You could find support for your needs as a growing designer.”

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Assistant Professor Valerie Friedmann presenting
Auburn MLA student work at Z+T Studio

The tours of BAM, Turenscape, and Z+T Studio provided students with a window into three very different types of landscape architecture practice. Although there are notable differences in office size and design culture, each firm displayed its own way of working toward the shared goal of promoting urban ecological innovation—a prevalent theme in current landscape architecture discourse. Whether through Turenscape’s time tested and data driven regional agenda, BAM’s artistic and technical approach to changing ideas of nature, or Z+T Studio’s focus on linking people and place through spectacle, we left China feeling a shared commitment to our discipline and to a shared goal—even with those practicing on the other side of the world.