The rapid change of the urban and rural environments in China makes it an ideal place to have a studio for College of Environmental Design students.
Architecture Professor Irma Ramirez and Urban and Regional Planning Professor Gwen Urey and a dozen students are participating this month in the latest visit to the country by the college’s award-winning studio.
The students and faculty members have been taking a hands-on approach and immersing themselves into the country’s culture. This has extended them outside of traditional tourist locales and into surrounding rural areas. Despite language barriers, the students and faculty have been documenting and analyzing the potential that these communities have in an effort to come up with design solutions that can best serve local governments.
“Any student you talked to who has gone through the program will say this is not a vacation,” Ramirez says. “China is not user friendly yet, and there is huge progress toward development and things are changing.”
This change can be seen in the increased urban share that makes up the Chinese population. In 1950, 13 percent of the country lived in cities, but, by 2010, the population living in urban areas had grown to 45 percent and is projected to increase to 60 percent by 2030.
Citing the fact that several of the largest cities in the world are in China, College of ENV Dean Michael Woo says it makes sense to send architecture, landscape architecture and urban and regional planning students into the world’s most dynamic and most fascinating laboratory for urban change.
“The ENV disciplines are at the cutting-edge of the most urgent problems facing the fastest-growing cities in the world,” he says.
While abroad, faculty and students have been working with partners including North China University of Technology in the western part of Beijing City. The Chinese students and educators have helped bridge the language gap for the Cal Poly Pomona students and helped them in their travels between major cities as well as rural communities.
A typical day for the studio starts at 8 a.m. when Chinese and Cal Poly Pomona faculty and students discuss their work from the prior day, prepare for the day ahead and listen to a lecture. The group then visits representatives at a local government office or an architecture or landscape architecture firm.
The group later visits project sites and conducts its research on topics such as culture, infrastructure or transportation patterns. They return to campus at about 6 p.m. to have dinner. At 8 p.m., everyone starts working again on presentations for the morning meeting, Ramirez says.
“The debriefing is important to us because we are working outside of our cultural norms and that’s a time when we can usually help students assess their questions to local citizens,” she says.
“People are very afraid to talk about the government. So we have students try to get histories from people, instead of asking them ‘What do you need.’”
The trek to China includes visits to cities that are thousands of years old like Beijing, modern cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai, as well as an array of surrounding communities in rural areas that are trying to keep up with the modern world.
“There are many of these cities made for tourism and the communities immediately next to them need to adapt to that development,” Ramirez says.
“Clearly the communities are going to have to cater to tourism, but they are also struggling to maintain their identity. We are going to come in to try to see what we can do for them this summer.”
The studio’s track record would indicate that these communities may want to welcome the input.
In 2011, the studio analyzed the Fayuan Temple area in Beijing and its potential for revitalization. The temple area had been hidden away and decaying. Pieces of the temple were even stolen.
A document compiled by the studio presented re-use alternatives and was shared with local government officials. Soon thereafter, demolition efforts for key historic buildings in the temple area were curtailed and discussions soon began on how to redevelop the area.
The work resulted in the studio receiving numerous honors, including the American Institute of Certified Planners’ Best Student Project Award for Applied Research. This was especially notable because the two-month studio was going up against other entries that had taken place over a year’s time, Ramirez says.
“Our collaborative work on these projects has a real relevance on projects happening there,” she says.
The studio has been in China since June 30. Faculty and students will return July 30 and continue to meet for another month at Cal Poly Pomona.