Undergraduate Zheming Cai’s ASLA award-winning student project to reimagine the historic military site of Shute’s Folly Island off coastal South Carolina took on the twin behemoths of preservation and tourism and forged them into a refined solution that balanced the site’s architectural and landscape histories. The project, Preservation as Provocation: Redefining Tourism, won a 2013 ASLA Student Honor Award and was praised by the “very impressed” jury for its sophistication. Cai’s design of the historic fortification “broke away from the military history” and “built on other reasons to visit,” according to the comments. Now a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cai talked with us about how to use flooding as an interpretive tool for historic places, understanding the genius loci, and taking a landscape perspective on tourism.
You won the ASLA Student Honor Award for a project that was about preservation and tourism in South Carolina while you were a student at Purdue University. Can you tell us how you got interested in these two concepts and how you chose the site?
This was my senior capstone design project. The previous semester, I had taken a more architecturally oriented historic preservation course with Ken Schuette, who is also my adviser. I had focused on community, cultural heritage, and downtown areas, so that took some of my initial interest in that direction. Schuette discovered a student competition for Castle Pinckney sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. He asked me if I had any interest in doing a competition for my capstone, and I said yes, I will do it.
The reason I picked this competition was that I was reading through their brief and they had this attached image of the castle (Castle Pinckney). Lots of my undergrad research is on the genius loci, the spirit of a place, and it reminded me a lot of the picturesque Tintern Abbey kind of image, and that got me really excited. I’m a landscape architect, so I wanted to stick my hat into the ring and do this competition from a landscape perspective. I didn’t win because my project wasn’t architectural enough, which was pretty interesting.
So initially it wasn’t my intention to apply for an ASLA award, but my adviser highly recommended it. At the time, I had graduated already and I was traveling in Yellowstone with my parents, so I had to put it all together in a little cabin.