Architects Explore Sustainable Housing Development in China

Confucian temple ceiling

By: CLiGS

This year the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS) continued to build upon its experience in China, expanding the reach of its China-related programs, by developing and leading a study tour for the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the U.S.’s leading professional association for architects. The group of 19 professional architects, all members of AIA’s Housing Knowledge Community and representing a wide range of both private architecture practices and academic institutions, traveled to China’s Yunnan Province in May, and were joined by CLiGS faculty Dr. Andrew Perlstein, a China expert who speaks Mandarin, and CLiGS Fellow Tom Howorth, FAIA, a practicing architect and AIA member who is also a CLiGS’ Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) alumnus.

image3Leveraging CLiG’s experience with bringing graduate students to Northwest Yunnan, as well as its growing network in the region, the study tour provided a unique opportunity for the architects to learn about Yunnan’s fascinating history, culture, and geography as well as some of the more complex challenges at play in that part of the world. The tightly-packed itinerary included in-depth presentations and discussions with local planners, architects, entrepreneurs, academics, and government officials, which allowed for exploration of themes such as the tension between historical preservation and environmental technology in the built environment, the impact of globalization and tourism on deeply-rooted communities, post-disaster reconstruction and fire prevention, and opportunities for educational exchange in an academic architecture program.

AIA in Yunnan“Traveling with the AIA group and helping to facilitate their meetings and discussions with Chinese experts and officials was a very rewarding experience for me,” said CLiGS faculty member Dr. Andrew Perlstein. “Thinking about the questions the participants raised from the perspective of their own professional background and training allowed me look at Yunnan and various issues in the region through fresh eyes.”

“The scale and intensity of change and economic growth in China, generally, and the slight delay in that change’s arrival in western China provides a rich opportunity for American architects to glimpse the future and, perhaps, make it better,” said Howorth. “This is what all architects strive for – a better future – and we all recognize the imperative of sustainable design in ecological and economic terms, but few put equal emphasis on social and cultural sustainability. That dimension is quite focused in Yunnan Province.”

“This was one of the most fulfilling trips I have taken,” said Simon Ha, Managing Partner of the Tate Snyder Kimsey Los Angeles office.  “At every point of the trip, I was trying to find criticism of the Chinese way.  At times trying to prove they are not doing things right.  At the end of the trip, I realized that there are lots of well intentioned, smart, and dedicated people who are passionate about making their places better. They will make some of the same mistakes we’ve made in the US as we developed.  In many ways, I’m envious of the opportunities and growth they are about to undertake but know that there will be growing pains.”

Linden Centre architecturePrior to the trip, CLiGS experts provided a series of webinars on the history and culture of Yunnan, the policy context for housing development in Chinese cities, and architectural heritage of the Bai, Naxi, and Tibetan people. The webinars, offered by Dr. Beth Notar, Dr. Andrew Perlstein, and Dr. John Flower and Dr. Pam Leonard respectively, provided background information to the participants prior to their trip, as well as to a wider AIA audience.

CLiGS Director Dr. Michael Mortimer said he hopes CLiGS will be able to continue offering sustainability-focused professional development opportunities like the AIA study tour.“CLiGS has been actively seeking opportunities to grow its knowledge-base in China and other key areas in rapidly developing countries around the world and to develop meaningful partnerships for understanding and addressing complex sustainability challenges. This year’s AIA tour is a step in that direction.”

Though the trip was demanding, featuring an itinerary packed with meetings, presentations and other engaging activities, the group also had time to take in some of the magnificent scenery and cultural heritage that Yunnan has to offer, including a boat trip across Erhai Lake in Dali, and a tour of the Songzanlin Monastery in Diqing Prefecture.

For a more in-depth look at the trip, please view the AIA Housing Knowledge Community’s publications summarizing the trip: