Napkin Sketch Conversations

Turning architectural practice into conversation at China’s Jilin University

Jilin University is located about an hour south of Hong Kong, reached by ferry, and tucked in between Macao and the South China Sea. It has the climate and feel of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area of Florida. It’s warm and clean, one of the few regions in China with little industry. The linearly-designed, bicycle-friendly university campus is set on the South China Sea and boasts easy access to a nearby beach. It’s a beautiful place.

Recently, I had the privilege of teaching for seven days at Jilin University – Zhu Hai College in Zhu Hai, China. At Jilin, I learned a great deal about communicating the basics of practicing architecture professionally across cultures. And I was reminded of the rationale for key aspects of practicing architecture as well as the primacy of keeping pace in our technology-dependent industry.

This opportunity was arranged by a former VOA intern Leon Lian who is now an urban designer in Shanghai, China and a professor at Jilin University. While Leon was a student and later an intern with VOA, he and I would frequently talk architecture over our lunchbreaks. Leon recently approached me about replicating these mealtime “Napkin Sketch” conversations we enjoyed for his students in China. This would never have taken place if I hadn’t had a chance meeting with Leon Lian while he was sketching away at the Starbucks near VOA Chicago’s offices. From there, I recruited him and he worked for VOA for a year before he took on a teaching role in Zhu Hai.

Conversations with the Dean of Architecture Ms. Julie Zhu, and Associate Dean Mr. Shushi Huang indicated a possible focus for my class: professional practice. As she explained, students at Jilin University and at architecture schools in China get little training in the nitty-gritty of architectural practice.

So for my class this winter, I focused on exposing the students to a diverse array of daily practice matters: finding new clients, networking, running a sequence of design meetings, managing clients and consultants during a design process, preparing fee proposals, determining how much to charge a client, and of course, looking for a job after graduation. There was a lot of ground to cover, and not speaking Mandarin, I had to overcome a language barrier to do so. I relied heavily on sketching and diagramming ideas to communicate. In this way, those napkin sketches and informal conversations proved a great template for communicating about architecture.

On the first day of class, I used infographics to conduct a survey to find out more about my students, who they were and where their interests lay. I found they had much in common: none had worked professionally, they were all fourth year students (in a five-year program) and they were for the most part from the Guangzhou province, where Zhu Hai is located. Many admired the Japanese architect Tadao Ando a great deal and museums were their favorite building type. Fortunately, I also discovered that most of the class loved to play basketball. As a longtime basketball coach, this presented a natural opportunity for further bonding. After class we would head to the courts and shoot hoops. I conducted several basketball clinics while at Jilin University.

Asking Questions
My teaching style is inspired by the Socratic method. It involves asking and answering a lot of questions and guiding a conversation. From the first day of class the students were reticent to ask questions. I had anticipated and let them ask me anything they wanted by writing questions on note cards. With this anonymous approach, the queries began to pour in and guided the subject matter of our discussion. Each morning began with a one hour question/answer session which would inform the daily conversation. I took questions such as “What was my definition of beauty?” and “How do you balance your life so that you are not working all the time?” We discussed architectural history and social issues and tied these into architecture theory and urban planning issues.

Mega Cities
Importantly one of the most compelling issues addressed in our daily conversations was Jilin University and Zhu Hai as the center of what will be the largest metropolitan area in the world within the next generation. The CTBUH (Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat) predicts that the area comprised of Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong will house 130 million residents by 2050 making it one of the world’s megacities. Zhu Hai will soon connect to Hong Kong directly via a bridge/causeway. Our class discussion forecasted how this physical connection will change the future of Jilin University and Zhu Hai College, the town of Zhu Hai and influence the lives of the students in their future roles as architects and designers.

I took questions such as ‘What was my definition of beauty?’ and ‘How do you balance your life so that you are not working all the time?’

Project leadership
During three days of structured class discussion, students had an opportunity to take on the role of “leader” for a project team to understand what those responsibilities involved. This type of leadership training and similuation of an integrated project approach to design and construction were, I learned, not concepts addressed in school. My interpreter, an architectural history professor, explained that questions and guiding a discussion led by student responses was a unique style of teaching within the school.

Design Critiques
During the last few days of class, students played the roles of designer and client to each other in a project simulation—each designer was assigned a student playing the client role. They were given the purposely abstract challenge of designing a “Place to Watch the Sunset.” The “architects” had to guide their “client” through a series of three client meetings. At the first meeting they conducted an introductory meeting on program and aspirations of the client; and a second meeting, to review “options and pros/cons of each option” and lastly ended with a presentation of their recommendation. Two VOA alumni (Leon Lian and Khai Toh) assisted me as critics for several days on the design project. This allowed us to have some design-related conversations with the class. This type of iterative review and discussion was new to the students, and clearly most did not have much experience presenting to a group, so this was valuable exposure.

By session’s end, the students were anticipating the real world challenges of architectural practice. I knew we had made significant progress when in our final class a student asked, “How do you resolve differences in design opinion between you and your client?”

For more on engagement, download the new VOA Design Quarterly.

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