I must admit I participated in the DigitalFUTURE Forum in Shanghai on June 25 with a significant degree of trepidation. I'm not a digital kind of guy; at the first mention of parametric anything, my eyes usually start glazing over. So the idea of spending a full day listening to 15 lectures and participating in a panel discussion on the topic of digital transformations made me wonder what I was doing at this year's American Academy in China (AAC).

Now in its fifth year, the AAC has become an important player in a multidirectional exchange between China, the U.S., Europe, Asia, and other regions. The brainchild of Qingyun Ma, dean of the school of architecture at the University of Southern California, it brings together students, teachers, and practitioners from around the globe to study in and explore China. 

This summer's AAC program was organized by Neil Leach of USC and Philip F. Yuan of Tongji University and represented a shift in direction. Previous iterations had been directed by Paul Tang with a greater focus on researching the rapidly changing conditions of China's built environment and their impact on the country's people, places, and ecologies. But Tang is taking time off right now from his teaching responsibilities to concentrate on his Shanghai-based practice. 

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Philip F. Yuan, who organized the conference with Neil Leach, addressed the attendees.

I missed the direct China connection that Tang brought to his programs, which sent students from various universities out in the field to examine patterns of development in places like Beijing, X'ian, and Lijiang, as well as Shanghai. And I wondered: Why bring students all the way to Shanghai to learn parametric modeling when they could just as easily do so in L.A.? 

But the presentations quelled my fears and answered many of my questions. Talks by Yuan, Holger Kehne of Plasma Studio, USC's David Gerber, Matias del Campo of Vienna-based SPAN, and Tom Verebes from the University of Hong Kong showed real-world applications of parametric design, grounding the digital vanguard in the bricks-and-mortar imperatives that every architect faces. Christopher Chan and Michael Peng of Gensler focused on the firm's 2,075-foot-tall Shanghai Tower now under construction, explaining how parametric software helped them analyze, shape, and refine the building's spiraling design. 

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A crowd of students, architects, and guests packed a hall at Tongji University.

Talks by two fabricators — Behrokh Khoshnevis and Jerry Ku — made the connection between the digital and the actual even more direct. Khoshnevis, an engineer who teaches at USC, outlined his work on a machine that works as a giant 3D printer, spitting out layers of concrete that can create entire buildings. Ku, an architect who founded a company called E-Grow, showed how he devises wax molds to create the complex formwork for buildings like Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House. Unlike typical wood formwork, wax molds can be melted down and used over and over, said Ku. 

Roland Snooks of USC presented the case for using the latest software to explore the formal and spatial boundaries of architecture. Leach, meanwhile, offered a welcome overview with his "Brief History of the Digital Future," noting some of the key developments over the past 30 years that have led to where we are today. 

Cristiano Ceccato from Hadid's office gave a remarkably thorough and engaging talk on the way the firm employs parametric modeling to analyze cost, scheduling, and design, and ensure that their formally complex projects are  delivered on time and budget. 

Even though Hadid's partner Patrik Schumacher got stuck in the Changsha airport and couldn't give his lecture on June 26, the firm's presence was strong at the AAC — with Ceccato and two Hadid alums (Gerber and Alvin Huang) giving presentations. Rather than feeling like too much, the Zaha-centric programming seemed to be a reflection of the firm's powerful role in the digital world and in China where it is busy on a number of huge projects. 

Filling in for Schumacher at the last moment, Ma talked about the winery and resort he is building in the countryside outside his hometown of X'ian. Explaining his ideas of "agri-urbanism" and the need to apply the design process to rural development, he offered a low-tech alternative to the digital universe. 

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Qingyun Ma explained his ideas of "agri-urbanism" and how he is applying them at his winery in X'ian.

The next evening, Huang showed some work he did at Hadid 's office and is now doing with his own firm, Synthesis Design + Architecture. In a hilarious example of what can happen when technological innovation meets the cold, cruel world, Huang told the story of building a temporary pavilion outside London's Architectural Association and discovering that he and his partner Alan Dempsey had thought of everything except getting a parking permit for the truck delivering all of the project's parametrically modeled and prefabricated components. Damn those bobbies! In the end, perseverance and ingenuity turned the project into an architectural and popular success. Which is the way I ended up feeling about this summer's AAC program as a whole.