Architects from Shanghai come to Oregon to learn sustainability practices

Xian Dai architect Kai Yang asks instructor Jeff Kline a question during a studio course in Lawrence Hall (photo by Emerson Malone)

Professional architects from Xian Dai Architectural Design Group in China are visiting the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts for 10 weeks of intensive study in sustainable architecture.

This marks the second year during which 10 professionals from the Shanghai-based firm have come to UO for continuing education in their profession. The visit is not only significant for furthering their careers, but the exchange program also bolsters the university’s top-ranked standing in sustainable design education.

The Shanghai-based Xian Dai was rated 9th in China (by "Engineering News-Record") among engineering and architectural design firms. Their projects range from the Shanghai 2010 World Expo buildings to 100-story skyscrapers, from automobile showrooms to opera houses.

Many of the visiting architects, in their mid-20s to mid-30s, have already won awards for their achievements.

“This partnership between an innovative firm working on state-of-the-art projects and a program committed to sustainable design is significant in its own right,” said Brook Muller, A&AA associate dean and associate professor of architecture. “It also provides a much-needed model of collaboration between professional and academic domains.”

A studio with G.Z. “Charlie” Brown, professor and director of the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory at UO, teaches students and architects the fundamentals of sustainable design. The studio relies on physical models of buildings to analyze and understand the structure; this is a new concept for some of the visiting professionals who were trained only to use software to create a digital model.

An image of Xian Dai's booth at the 2013 Green Building Technology Week (photo courtesy of Center of Asian and Pacific Studies)Jing Wang and Yujia Li, two of the visiting Xian Dai architects, cited a greater chance to communicate in class as another major difference from studying in China.

“Here, discussion is much more important,” Yujia said. “We can communicate with each other so we can change our minds so we can make our designs. We can get others’ opinion or [learn] something we didn’t realize. It’s very fantastic.”

“[The exchange program] creates a connection between architectural practices in China and A&AA. It means Xian Dai architects could learn a lot from the school, especially in [sustainability],” said Juxin Zhang, another Xian Dai architect. “Students of UO could have the opportunity to practice or work in Xian Dai through us.”

The Xian Dai guests visited Mount Angel Abbey in late October to see the library designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and the Annunciation Hall designed by SRG architects with Charlie Brown’s Energy Studies in Buildings lab.

Other trips will explore architecture in Portland, nationally recognized as a pioneer in sustainable urbanism and design. Additional outings include visits to Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Some trips are structured through UO; others are independently planned.

The shift in cultural perspective adds a great deal to the course, said Muller, proving the visit educational for both cultures.

“Their transformation of the Chinese urban landscape is dramatic,” said Muller. “They have to assimilate new knowledge really quickly. The demands and the pressures for designing and building are great. The timeframes that they have to work within are a fraction of what I was accustomed to in architectural practice. … That’s great learning for us.”

Muller also noted the importance of continuously renewing UO’s standing in nationally ranked programs.

“Given the pace of change [in architecture], you can’t sit there and rely on past accomplishments and expect to maintain your position,” he said. “Linkages to innovative practices within progressive design cultures are essential to maintaining a leadership role in architectural education, elevating the quality and relevance of our research, and adding richness to our intellectual culture.”

- by Emerson Malone, UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts