Every architecture school in the U.S. seems to run studios in China these days, using the Middle Kingdom’s hyper-urbanism and frenetic pace of construction as an on-going case study open to myriad readings and interpretations. Professors and their students usually jet into Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, Chongqing, or wherever, spend a summer session or semester digging into fascinating aspects of the world’s largest country’s radical makeover from Maoist laggard to 21st-century superstar, then head home. Next semester or next summer, another group of smart young things descends on China and, often as not, examines the same issues and places as the previous gang did. So instead of building on earlier work and sharing its own, each studio tends to till the same academic soil over and over.
Qingyun Ma, the dean at USC and principal of the Shanghai firm MADA s.p.a.m., saw what was happening and decided to offer a solution. So in 2008, he started the American Academy in China (AAC), which would provide a permanent base for various universities to explore architecture, urbanism, and the arts in China. Instead of reinventing the wheel each semester and working on their own, studio leaders from different architecture schools could collaborate and pick up where earlier ones had left off. For the past two summers, the AAC has brought together teachers and students from schools such as USC, Columbia, Seoul National University, Tongji (in Shanghai), and Tsinghua (in Beijing) to look at the “momentary urbanism” of Beijing’s Olympics, the tropical ecology of Hainan island, the historic fabric of Lijiang, episodic interventions in Shanghai’s changing cityscape, and other critical issues.
In a recent talk in New York at the Museum of Chinese in America, Ma explained his thinking behind the AAC and plans for its future. With Adele Chatfield-Taylor, the director of the American Academy in Rome, sitting in the front row, he mentioned his goal of adding a visiting scholars or fellows component and giving the academy a year-round presence. He also described an exhibition that the AAC mounted in Beijing at the end of this past summer. Entitled “Divergent Convergence: Speculations on China,” the show brought together work by students and researchers from 15 architecture schools, including USC, Harvard, MIT, Yale, Cornell, and Princeton. Joseph Grima, Jiang Jun, Charlie Koolhaas, and Qin Lei served as curators of the exhibition, Paul R. Tang was its director, and Ma Yansong of the Beijing-based firm MAD designed the installation.
View of the "Divergent Convergence" exhibition in Beijing