Ranjani Prabhakar:

My experience with the Shanghai Studio Trip to China far exceeded my expectations. After months of working within the studio at Georgia Tech and making assumptions on our plans, it was great to visit the island first-hand, talk to native people and get a sense for who, why and what we were planning and designing for. Above all, the opportunity to work with the students at Tongji University was a real learning experience. Not only did we have a chance to bond with such a hospitable and talented group of students, but being able to overcome communication challenges and relate and agree on our work was both rewarding and insightful. It has set precedence for me to want to engage in work abroad with various communities and entities, and be able to learn and grow from them. Overall, the trip to Shanghai for our studio was one of the best experiences of my graduate school career. I am happy with the fact that Georgia Tech offers such a strong international program and supports its students learning to be planners/architects/engineers from a hands-on, global perspective.


Kevin Lanza:

Being my first design studio, I learned much about the studio process, design, the site of interest, and mixed collaboration; I hope to continue developing each of these in future work. Overall, I believe the Chongming studio was a resounding success. Now, in order to thoroughly review the studio and for clarity, the studio will be split into three parts: pre-site, on-ground collaboration, and post-site.

The pre-site phase consisted of independent work by Georgia Tech students. Several aspects went into this part: professor-mediated groupings, lecture, outside speakers, and TA tutorials. All four aspects allowed Georgia Tech students to gain reasonable knowledge about the island, the goals of the studio, and tools to present our goals.  Professor Yang offered group splits of Energy, Water, Agriculture, and Chinese-Garden, which were further subdivided into Process, GIS, and Design for each group member. The presentations by Professor Yang, Steven, classmates, and guests gave each student a strong background, even though data on Chongming Island was severely lacking. The most valuable aspect of the process in this phase of the studio was the studio reviews. Because the reviews had concrete deadlines and understood deliverables, students were more likely to produce something of meaning. The feedback we received from the reviewers refocused our efforts and increased the practicality of our work. In future studios, a lack of structure may inhibit forward progress. Whenever deadlines and specific deliverables were assigned to the students, high quality results were produced.

The on-ground collaboration phase can be broken down into two parts: Chongming Island and studio work. Both parts were imperative to our overall success. On Chongming Island, we participated in on-site walkthroughs and either interviews with Chongming residents or sightseeing. The on-site walkthrough was perfectly placed as our first task in China; it was essential that the Georgia Tech students saw the on-the-ground conditions, as before this our physical knowledge of the island was limited. Splitting into groups to traverse different parts of the north site allowed us to see more portions in aggregate, and to interact more closely with our groupmates. After the walk-through, I felt confident that I gained a feel for the site. The next day, the group split may have been less efficient: most students went sightseeing, while 5 or 6 Georgia Tech students joined Tongji students in interviews. The interviews were highly valuable for me, even though I did not speak Chinese. Telling my group translator specific questions to ask the Chongming residents proved fruitful. Now I had a feel of the island from the initial walk-through, and a feel for the people behind the structure and the behavior that drove their physical environment. From other students, I heard the sightseeing was not as effective as they would have liked in learning about Chongming Island.

After our Chongming site visit, we traveled to Shanghai to draft proposals to present to the Chinese government. But before we broke into proposal groups of 1) housing/community, 2) jobs/industry, and 3) recreation/tourism, we ran into some process issues. The first few days in Shanghai, the students took too much time on tasks we should have quickly completed. In particular, there was a research and presentation day where there were 12 topics of interest. Unfortunately, we did not work efficiently on this, and ended up spending ~14 hours in the studio space. Luckily, we learned from our mistakes, and several of us had an informal meeting to discuss strategies to keep that from happening again.

The intragroup interaction was extremely important. We split into our three final proposal groups of equal parts Georgia Tech and Tongji students. We learned much from collaborating with Tongji students, as our skill sets differed; we brought communication and research skills and they brought strong AutoCAD skills and work ethic. We did notice that Georgia Tech students had to take a leadership role to produce the correct results. If we did not check in with the Tongji students after some time on a task, our group would stray from the desired output. Learning to keep everyone in the group informed and working on tasks that complemented each person’s skill set were the most valuable aspects of the studio for me. By the end of our recreation/tourism group work, all our groupmates had become close friends.

At a larger scale, Professor Yang and Professor Dagenhart were vital in providing the necessary structure for us to succeed. First thing in the morning, both of them would lecture and describe the tasks of the day. Creating lists on the board were helpful, as we could easily split tasks amongst groups, and could refer back to the list as needed throughout the day. Professor Dagenhart did a brilliant job outlining what was expected from us. Professor Yang set deadlines for later in the day for us to present, which created a standard workday. One part of the process that was beneficial was the incremental feedback we received from both professors on our tasks. After hearing their critiques, we were able to refocus our attention and produce a higher quality output.

Our last phase, post-site, started with this journal reflection of our experience in China. I’m not entirely sure what the rest of this phase entails, but I believe it will include Professor Yang and Steven debriefing the students on the results of our presentation to the Chinese government. From what we learn from the debriefing, I assume we will draft an ultimate proposal incorporating the wants of the Chinese government and including quantitative metrics to drive the concepts. Because we soon left China after presenting our proposals to the Chinese government, there was not enough time for a summary/recap meeting after the presentation about our work. I propose this kind of meeting for future studios, as it will allow studio participants to learn of the government’s reactions/thoughts and consciously/subconsciously think of next tasks in studio.

Other disconnects took place in the studio that would be difficult to remediate. Many of the ideas and specifics produced from the pre-site phase were not utilized in the on-ground collaboration phase (although this may be an unfair statement, as the gained knowledge from the pre-site phase was employed while in China). Specifically, the three proposals we presented to the Chinese government were dissimilar from the Water, Energy, Agriculture, and Chinese Garden groups during the pre-site phase. Much of the early studio research while in Shanghai was not utilized in the three proposals. Also, the lack of concrete Chongming data hampered our ability to put the tutorial tools into action.

Overall, our group worked harder in Chongming Island than I expected, and I believe this led to a successful presentation. The interaction with group members and professors of different schooling and cultural backgrounds resulted in a rich experience and a more complete finished product. I left China knowing that I was not finished with the work over there, and hope to be a part of this real-world project in some capacity in the future. Additionally, we had ample time to tour Shanghai, enjoy the inexpensive, delicious food, and make friends with students from across the world.


Cary Bearn:

Over spring break, I was able to travel to China as part of Perry Yang’s Georgia Tech studio group.  The studio has been focused around the development of a site in the Dongtan region of Chongming Island, an island off the coast of Shanghai.

Upon arriving in China, we traveled directly to the island, where we spent two full days exploring, observing, and interviewing locals.  After several weeks of trying to identify what kind of developments had already occurred on the island, it was very enlightening to be able to actually walk around the site.  The extensive canal system that we observed through the aerial images and inferred through different data sources were far less interconnected than I had realized.  As such, there was little flow associated with the smaller water ways and there was substantial accumulation of litter, garbage, and pollution.  It was also obvious that given the amount of water integrated into the traditional development system, that any efforts to develop the island would have to be conducted alongside major efforts to increase the retention and detention abilities of the existing/proposed bodies of water.

I was also struck by the size and density of the village.  The village was a vibrant area with multiple restaurants, a large market, several shops, and even some light industry.  This natural village structure was in direct contrast to the currently planned and partially completed development.  From a planning prospective, the general connectivity and quality of the new development was poor.  However, many of condos seemed lived in and we talked to several residents that were relatively happy with their apartments.  However, the ability of residents to connect with the traditional village area was poor and the built environment was in direct contrast.

After a couple days on the island, we left continue our work in Shanghai at the Tongji University architecture studio.  After much reflection, we began to work on creating a design framework based on one of three inspirations: housing, jobs, and recreation.  Each team consisted of a combination of planning students from Georgia Tech and architecture students from Tongji University.  Working in the recreation group, I think we benefited greatly from the diverse set of professional and cultural backgrounds.  Neither the architects nor the planners were technical experts in urban design, but the combination of expertise and perspectives lead to a productive discussion of place, recreation, and tourism.

The trip was essential for the actual design project and the experiences on and off the island directly led to an improved understanding of the island and of the site.  Furthermore, through working with the architecture studio as well as the building construction and management groups, we were also able to gain experiences working and communicating with people from different cultures and different professional backgrounds.

As we move forward, I think we will be able to merge the three design proposals into a consistent and more thorough proposal.  Each of the three presentations in Shanghai had different strengths and I think they will be able to effectively be combined into a single framework.  The energy analysis will also be able to nicely overlay onto the final framework and further enhance our design.


Robby Guthart:

I sincerely enjoyed my travels to China. Landing in the airport and immediately catching a taxi with Steven to be quickly driven far away from the city on the remote Chongming Island was the perfect introduction to the workshop week. I realized how physically close Chongming Island is to Shanghai, and yet so socially and culturally separated.

The first three days involved site visits and assessments of Dongtan. I enjoyed working with the Tongji building management students. I did not expect to be working with Italian students while in China, but I enjoyed learning their perspectives. Assessing the Dongtan area by foot was an excellent way to experience the island first hand. I saw how people actually lived on this island. There were so many scooters, bikes, and small automobiles. People who lived in the area were friendly and welcomed students into their homes on several occasions. Working with two Tongji students, I had the opportunity to participate in interviews of local people. I was surprised how often people of the area indicated how happy they were. Most people work or have family who work in Shanghai. The residences were so dense. A couple families might live in one dwelling. I was surprised at the economic diversity along one street. A massive mansion shadowed a few shacks, and along the path several more strong moderately sized homes stood.

After exploring the site, we traveled to Shanghai for the rest of the week. The workshop had a surprising start to me. I felt that we were starting backwards by re-examining fundamentals. I do think the exercise was beneficial as an ice breaker between the Chinese and American students. I was happy when the workshop split into three groups to produce three designs with three unique programs. I thoroughly enjoyed my group. I learned so much from my Chinese friends. I am amazed how productive we were in just a few short days.

While in Shanghai, we visited the Disney Shanghai Research Laboratory for a day. While at Disney, we engaged with the students from both the building management and the architecture disciplines. Several group exercises were conducted which helped summarize and organize ideas that were generated from the site trip to Chongming Island.

The symposium on Saturday was an interesting public speaking opportunity for me. I am unsure how many people listened to me or could understand my language. I hope influential audience members learned from our presentation.

I had an amazing trip, and hope to visit China again in the very near future. The Tongji students were very good hosts.


Jennifer Grimes:

Our studio trip to Shanghai had to have been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

In an exciting turn of events, a few of us were able to finagle a layover in Japan on the way to China and back. I had always wanted to go to Japan more than any other country, and the fact that our time there wouldn’t even amount to more than 24 hours did not discourage me. I was ecstatic just to step foot in that lovely place. As a recovering aviophobe, however, I was not looking forward to the 12.5 hour flight from Chicago to Japan. Or any of the flights for that matter. But, not counting the immediate confiscation of my oversized bottle of liquid shampoo, my airport experiences went quite smoothly. The sheer time spent traveling between countries was slightly ridiculous, but it really didn’t feel as long as I had expected.

Initially, we stayed at a quirky hotel on Chongming Island, a rural alluvial island off the coast of Shanghai. The lingering facade of a post-communist society was apparent everywhere. The hotel seemed as though the only staff that actually worked there were a couple housekeepers and the front desk workers. The toilets did not enjoy flushing and toilet paper, unless you were in your hotel room, was available in the form of paper towels meant to be discarded in a waste basket.  I do not mention this to be critical; I think the cultural and infrastructure differences are meaningful and that nuances such as these underscored the elements of the trip that I found most enriching. The sewage system was, after all, a large dynamic to consider in our site plan. (Apparently, many sewage systems in China are either old or nonexistent, so   not flushing toilet paper is a good practice for keeping the system working properly. Additionally, since many people already don’t flush toilet paper, a good amount of new developments don’t come with toilet paper-capable plumbing either.)

The internet was nonexistent unless you were in the lobby, and even then it was pretty spotty service. The first thing I noticed was how loud everything was. Motor bikes and cars would honk at the slightest notice of a nearby human, regardless of whether you were in their way. The streets bustled with diurnal activity, natives stopped and stared at our obviously foreign faces, and we attempted to appease our new Chinese friends by picking up bits and pieces of their first language. This was a source of much delight for us, and I think it was for them as well. I gave up trying to learn the language pretty soon after a gaggle of mahjong-playing women transparently mocked our poor grasp of their mother tongue. However, it did not stop me from using the 3 words I did learn on the trip, ‘thank you’, ‘how are you’, and of course ‘kitty’.

We were excited to finally leave the hotel on Chongming Island and get to Shanghai. Once there, we worked really hard every day. The jet lag was pretty bad and I honestly felt pretty home sick for a while, but the coping/survival area of my brain finally shut down the rest of it and took over. Looking back, I enjoyed myself but had to try really, really hard to not get too stressed out about constantly being around and following the group. One day I finally managed to be alone for a couple hours and it was one of the first times in my life being alone has ever felt amazing. Riding the train and walking around the city by myself was a lot of fun, especially considering how much it made me realize the extent to which I had just been mindlessly following the group (and our great Chinese hosts/tour guides). Though it was much easier (and probably safer) for us to have our new Chinese friends guide us around the city, ordering food and haggling for us whenever necessary, I felt like I was also losing out a little by not being able to at least navigate the city by myself.

So one day I went to the zoo. All alone! It wasn’t until I stepped foot into the zoo that I remembered, “oh wait… I HATE zoos.” But it was too late. So I made a beeline for what I thought would be their creme de la creme of zoo animal exhibits, the panda. But when I got there, the poor guy was sleeping in a position that made him look dead (like the majority of your most anticipated zoo animals, asleep/dead-looking). He was also brown where I thought he would be white, but I couldn’t remember if that was normal so I decided to try not to think about it anymore.

I really felt the language barrier in China… hard. I had just come from another Asian country where communicating with natives gave me a japanophile nerd rush, so the juxtaposition of experiences made the difference seem even more dramatic. Another difference between Japan/China/U.S.: the quality continuum of toilets. With the U.S. teetering somewhere in the middle, China was on the bottom (in terms of comfort/technology) and Japan is definitely at the top. Their toilets came with remote controls! Many of the seats (as well as other types of seating) were even heated. They came with “Ultra deodorizer” options and at least 6 other buttons I was afraid to touch.

Even though most of the trip was spent ruminating about toilets, I feel like I should mention the food or something. I thought the food was good, but it was pretty homogeneous. I got tired of the sheer invariability more than the food itself. I’m already not a big fan of salty/saucy/meaty foods, and at certain points I was definitely craving plain steamed vegetables or grilled fish. There were surprisingly few seafood options, and I had brought with me a hefty craving for crab. The closest I got to satisfying that craving, however, was in the form of a ‘crab’ bun that I’m pretty sure was actually filled with pork. However, our meals were ample, satisfying, and partaken in great company.

Working with the Chinese students was challenging, yet rewarding and fun. My major criticism of the trip is that the length (about 12 days) ended up greatly impeding my ability to finish assignments for other classes. As internet was largely unavailable ( VPN/Google/access to remote desktop was basically unfathomable), and the workdays lasted for about 12 hours, it was impossible to do work for other classes. Literally all of my other assignments, as well as one presentation and an exam, had to be turned in/completed much later than their original due dates.  Thankfully my professors have been generous and have worked with me on extensions, but it’s been a significant source of stress. I’m not sure if a shorter trip duration would solve this problem, or whether work days should be shorter to allow work on other projects, but I think it would be helpful to address this somehow. Another suggestion for future trips is to address the cellular communication obstacle we faced. I think a prepaid phone for each student would have substantial benefits, as we could not communicate with each other (on our phones/devices) unless we were all in the lobby, which then made communication systems a moot point.


Hoang Luu:

During the spring break, I had a chance to participate an International Design Workshop in Shanghai, China. At first, I think the workshop will be as similar as at Georgia Tech. It was totally different. Having an International Design Workshop in another country is very challenging and exciting experience.
First, this workshop is very challenging not only in design practice, but also in communication process. The design practice between America and China is very different. It is a challenge to cooperate the different without compromise each other practice. For instant, Chinese students design’s intentions are relocating all existing residents for a better eco-town. In the other hand, American students design’s intentions are keeping all existing resident within the eco-town. As a result, we had a very strong opposition at the beginning. Luckily, we found a solution. In order to work with each other, we all have to write down both side’s pros and cons. Then we debate over it. Finally, we convince the Chinese students to keep the current resident by showing more positive impacts toward the island. Furthermore, the communications between 2 groups are very difficult because of different English language and level of comprehensiveness. Since Chinese students are speaking British English, and American students speak American English. Therefore some phrases or words were misunderstood along the communication. In addition, the level of understanding English between Chinese students are different. One can speak very well, but the other one speaks very little. As a result, there was some miss-communication along the design process. For instant, we all discussed about improving water quality through using the same canal structure. Somehow, the translation was lost. As a result, two group having totally 2 different design concepts. Both Chinese and American students have to work very hard and be very patient to each other in order to explain thoroughly and completely to each other. We always make sure that we are all in the same page by asking each other consistently. Whoever does not understand has to ask the question immediately. Fortunately, we all came to the same page at the end.
Even though the workshop is very challenging, it is also very exciting. It is exciting because we are working on a real project, and we had the opportunity to experience the different culture. By seeing the people at the island and knowing that we are design a project that will improve ecology and residents’ life, I am so glad that I chose this studio. In addition, Experience the different culture is very interesting. Even though I came from Vietnam, a Southeast Asia culture, I still feel very different from my culture.

In conclusion, this trip is a lifetime experience and very enjoyable.


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