The Great Exchange

Professors from both sides of the Pacific talk about the amazing cultural exchange happening between American and Chinese universities and the rising stature of landscape architecture in China.

By Daniel Jost

The Panelists (clockwise from top left): Jeff Hou, ASLA; Zhifang Wang; Kongjian Yu, FASLA; Ron Henderson, FASLA; Frederick R. Steiner, FASLA; Binyi Liu, Honorary ASLA; Chuo Li; Daniel Jost, ASLA; Jie Hu, International ASLA
The Panelists (clockwise from top left): Jeff Hou, ASLA; Zhifang Wang; Kongjian Yu, FASLA; Ron Henderson, FASLA; Frederick R. Steiner, FASLA; Binyi Liu, Honorary ASLA; Chuo Li; Daniel Jost, ASLA; Jie Hu, International ASLA.

A decade and a half ago, the Chinese government “canceled” landscape architecture education in China. Some bureaucrats decided the discipline was superfluous. Today, the profession of landscape architecture is growing in that country like nowhere else in the world. Landscape architects are among China’s most highly paid professionals, and Chinese students are flooding into American universities to study landscape architecture at an unprecedented rate.

Meanwhile, landscape architecture education has come back into favor in China, and Chinese universities have established or reestablished nearly 200 landscape architecture programs in less than a decade. Some of the people who lead China’s most influential programs studied in the United States, and some of the programs have strong connections with American academics. Tsinghua University’s landscape architecture program was established with the help of a team of American landscape architects led by Laurie Olin, FASLA, of the University of Pennsylvania. Patrick Miller, FASLA, a longtime professor at Virginia Tech, is the honorary chair of landscape studies at Tongji University in Shanghai.

Yet the teaching of landscape architecture in China is often quite different from what U.S. students would recognize—many Chinese programs make a stronger connection between education and practice. And what each program teaches is, for the moment, less standardized than even America’s highly diverse programs. Right now, China has no system for accrediting landscape architecture education, though efforts are under way to change that.

In December, we brought together eight academics from the United States and China to talk about the cultural exchange taking place between their countries and issues educators face in China as they try to build the profession there.

Four of the panelists live and work primarily in China. Kongjian Yu, FASLA, whose work appears in this month’s issue, is the founder and dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the president of Turenscape, and a visiting professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Jie Hu, International ASLA, is an associate professor at Tsinghua University and the director of the Research Center for Landscape Architecture Planning at the Beijing Tsinghua Tongheng Planning and Design Institute—best known for its design of Beijing’s Olympic Forest Park. Binyi Liu, Honorary ASLA, heads the landscape architecture department at Tongji University in Shanghai, and he is also an adjunct lecturer at Virginia Tech. Liu was recently named the vice chairman of the Education Steering Committee in Landscape Architecture for China’s National Institution of Higher Education. And Zhifang Wang recently became an associate professor at Peking University. For the past four years, she has been an assistant professor at Texas A&M University. All of our Chinese panelists have studied in the United States.

Our panel also included four American academics with extensive knowledge of the landscape architecture profession in China. Frederick R. Steiner, FASLA, is the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. He was formerly a visiting professor at Tsinghua University and has served as an adviser to Peking University. Ron Henderson, FASLA, was an associate professor of landscape architecture at
Tsinghua University for six years before returning to the United States to chair Pennsylvania State University’s landscape architecture program in 2011. Jeff Hou, ASLA, chairs the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Washington and has led a studio focused on earthquake recovery in Sichuan, China. And, finally, Chuo (pronounced Chwa) Li is an assistant professor at Mississippi State University. She grew up in China’s Fujian province and studied in China before pursuing graduate studies in the United States.

The conversation occurred over Skype. What follows are edited and condensed highlights, which have been corrected, in places, for language variations.

A Rebirth

Frederick Steiner: I think the big story is in the year 2000, there was really only one landscape architecture program in China, at Beijing Forestry University, and the last time I counted, which was two years ago, there were 184. By contrast, in the United States, the first was Harvard University in 1900, and I think at last count, some 70 universities in the United States have landscape architecture programs. So, the growth in China in the last 12 years has been phenomenal. So, you know, why?

Daniel Jost: Why the sudden increase?

Binyi Liu: Actually it is not suddenly. There is a special year in China for landscape architecture education. That’s 1996. In 1996, the Chinese government canceled a lot of degrees. Landscape architecture programs were canceled. But before that, there were already some programs. For example, from 1952, there were three schools—Tsinghua University, Beijing Forestry University, and Tongji University—with courses for this discipline. I’d like to say before 1996, we already had 60 programs in China for landscape architecture. After 1996, many programs were canceled. Of the programs based in architecture schools, only the landscape architecture program at Tongji University was left.

Many schools canceled their programs until two years ago. That’s another remarkable year, 2011. In 2011, China’s Office of the State Council Degree made landscape architecture a first-class discipline like architecture. After this, many schools started to reestablish or establish the program.

In the Chinese system for education, you have first-class, second-class, and third-class programs. Actually there is no third class. There is first class like architecture. Then second class—within architecture there was architecture history, for example, and urban planning. Between 1996 and 2011, landscape architecture was included in urban planning, so we think of landscape architecture as a third-class rank. But now, suddenly, after 2011, urban planning and landscape architecture come to first rank, equal to architects. That’s a big jump. No doubt that will be a big development. There are many things that could be done, for example, accreditation.

Kongjian Yu: I would say there are several reasons for the blooming of landscape architecture programs. The first one is the speed of urbanization. Before the 1980s, Chinese urban development was almost stagnant. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, almost nothing was built. That is why there was only one landscape gardening program or maybe a couple other minor programs during the 1980s. That’s exactly the reason why the program was canceled in 1997. Of course that was a mistake. The second reason: The payment of the professional landscape architect is much higher than even architect. It was listed as one of the 10 most highly paid professions in China for about 10 years.

The Lure of America

Jost: Kongjian and Jie Hu, can you talk a little bit about what it was like to study landscape architecture at Beijing Forestry University in the 1980s? What sort of education did you get there?

Yu: I would say it was basically landscape gardening. We were educated about the traditional garden and park design and urban greenery. This kind of landscape gardening program expanded into scenic area planning in the 1980s when the Ministry of Construction created some scenic and historic sites, similar to the U.S. National Parks. Still, it’s not about urbanization, not about normal, everyday landscapes.

Jost: Jie Hu, would you agree?

Jie Hu: Yes, I took the graduate program from 1983 to 1986, and the major curriculum in Beijing Forestry University was planting material and construction related to the garden scale. And also some study of classical gardens—the theory and also the survey and modeling of the classical gardens. There was very limited study related to the planning scale.

After I studied in Beijing Forestry University, I went to the University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign]. I actually got education on a much larger scale in ecological planning, and landscape planning at the city scale and at a regional scale. Also, I learned about more scientific ecological analysis, geology analysis, and also climate analysis. I think this program is still missing in many Chinese universities.

Liu: My school, Tongji, started large-scale ecological planning 10 years ago. It started with tourist development.

Chuo Li: I have something to add about the differences between American and Chinese education. I think the most important difference is the methodology, how you approach a site and how you eventually come up with a solution. I think in the United States, there is really a focus on community engagement. And in China, I think probably the approach is more from the top down.

I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 1999. At that time, there weren’t many landscape architecture programs in China, but, in architecture programs, we also did a lot of site plans. We didn’t really visit a site, or do site inventory or analysis, or talk to the people.

Zhifang Wang: I think what Chuo said is true. From my personal experience, also in landscape architecture, that is true. I think there are two reasons for that. The first: The whole decision-making process in China is a top-down process. That is why, I think, sometimes we think less about public opinion. The second: We have a really fast urbanization process. The decision-making process is also very fast. There’s no time to think, and there’s no time to get the public involved.

Liu: I would like to make some comments that are opposite to that view, because China now is gradually including the public in the process of planning and design. During the final decision-making process, there is a stage to show the planning proposal to the public for one week or one month and listen to the public’s view and to modify the proposal.

Ron Henderson: Caroline Chen’s study of impromptu public space use in Beijing looked at the relationship between the kinds of public spaces that were being provided by government action and the actual spaces the community chose to inhabit. Profound examples were parks built with grass and trees, which didn’t satisfy the needs for some of the social events such as fan dancing and ballroom dancing that the neighborhood wanted. Those activities actually ended up under freeway overpasses. Very few cultures know how to use public space as well as people do in China, and the ability to keep up with the desire for public space is a real challenge.

Jeff Hou: We have a lot of students from China, and this is a topic that they all find very interesting.

Hu: In the Chinese education program, the curriculum does not do a lot to encourage community involvement and interviews with users. In practice, it is based on the leaders. Some design teams, some design leaders, really encourage the team to interview the user, the public, and the people. Sometimes we do hold community meetings to discuss our design and to discuss design issues with the community, and some teams are not encouraged to do that because they only hear from the mayor. Also, the project time is so rushed, and based on the limited budget, they may not have a chance to make a strong relationship between the designers and the users.

Jost: What reasons did you all have for coming to the United States to do graduate work?

Li: When I studied in China, I was a little bit overwhelmed with the emphasis on your drawing skills, your computer skills…. I think one of the big reasons I came to the United States is I was really looking for more than that. At the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois, I received a lot of education on how the social and cultural aspects of landscape should be very important factors in not only landscape design but landscape studies in general.

Hu: After I graduated from Beijing Forestry University, my adviser, Professor Xiaoxiang Sun, traveled around the world and lectured at several universities. He encouraged me to go to the United States. At that time, I would say the U.S. teaching was more rational, scientific, and function oriented. And in China, my education was more visual, poetic, emotional, and symbolic. I would not say either one is right or wrong, but both need to be studied and balanced.

Yu: As I said, the education at my school, the Beijing Forestry University, was pretty much landscape gardening. In the mid-1980s, I first came across some English books like Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature, and also some magazines like Landscape and Urban Planning and Landscape Journal. What I read is quite different and broader scale. At that time, Carl Steinitz [Honorary ASLA] was in China, and I was selected as one of the interpreters for his lecture and touring. That gave me a chance to understand ecological planning, the large-scale landscape, and modernism. Modern design and ecological ideas were quite attractive and new to us. That’s the reason I decided to go to Harvard for the Doctor of Design program.

Henderson: I have a question for Hu Jie and Binyi Liu, and you, Kongjian: Considering the reason why you wanted to come to the United States for education, do the current students have a different reason to come or is it the same reason?

Yu: In my time, to go abroad, to go to study in the United States, it was patriotism. We wanted to change the situation in China at that time. I’m not sure about today’s students. It’s more diverse, obviously.

Henderson: Yes, during the time that I was in Beijing, I felt the students’ priorities shift. At one point the students’ ambition was not a personal ambition but an ambition about what the country could become, what the department could become, what the profession of landscape architecture could become. My sense now is that there is a different kind of ambition that’s slightly more personal—their ambition for their own success. Is that fair to say?

Liu: Yes, Ron, I totally agree.

Hou: I can add that I can sense a shift in the personal statements that Chinese students put in their applications; the way they write about their motivation is very different now, compared to even just three years ago. Before, they talked about how much the urban transformation is happening in China and how that has really shaped their worldview of the profession and how the profession can contribute to repairing those environments. Now they all just talk about how they want to work for AECOM.


Yu: Right now so many foreign firms are very successful practicing in China. The market is more toward the Western designers. So, the students see that if they are educated well in the United States or in Europe, they can get a better job and a better salary.

Wang: Also, the visa process is so much easier now than it was 10 years ago. Ten years ago, if you didn’t have fellowship support, you were going to have trouble to get a visa to America, but now it’s so different. If you can pay by yourself, if your family is rich, you can get a visa.

Li: I think in addition to getting better
pay, some students may just want to be better designers. I have a friend who got a very good job in China, but he still decided to go to the United States to do his graduate study because he told me he wanted to be a very well-known designer in the world. After he got his master’s degree, he got a very good job in Hong Kong—it actually paid much better than the United States—but he still decided to take the job in the United States because he thought that company in the United States might give him a better chance to get some awards, you know, to get some projects that let him explore very significant ideas. So, sometimes, I think it’s more than money.

Think Teaching Hospitals

Jost: This year’s ASLA Professional Award of Excellence went to the Qunli Stormwater Park. The design is credited to Turenscape and Peking University. The Quarry Garden at Shanghai Botanical Garden, which won a 2012 ASLA Honor Award, is credited to THUPDI and Tsinghua University. The way that practice and education are connected in China is very interesting. Can one of you describe how institutes and firms are connected with universities in China and what exactly it means when I see a university and a firm have together won a professional award?

Yu: In China we have the tradition of design institutes based in a school; it’s part of the school actually. Before the late 1990s, there was virtually no private practice in China. You have to understand that. If you wanted to practice, you had to be based in a school.

Hu: Tsinghua University has a university-related design institute. I would say this is a very good approach to connect education, research, and practice. The professors can get the latest ideas for research. Students can learn about practice in the front line from the practitioner. The practitioner can learn from the educators. So it’s three parts supporting each other to find a really interesting balance.

Steiner: One way of getting our head
around it is to think of the role that teaching hospitals play in medical education.

Henderson: Exactly.

Steiner: You couldn’t really consider becoming a physician in the United States unless you went through a teaching hospital, and in many ways the institutes at the great Chinese universities resemble a teaching hospital as much as a private practice.

Henderson: This paradigm is changing. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development have now asked faculty members at the universities to declare if they are teaching or practicing. You can imagine the difficulties in the fiduciary responsibilities on a project when the university is affiliated with a practice arm. If there is a project that has some kind of problem, the universities are kind of on the hook for that. I think there has been some interest in a shift from the ministries to probably pull these apart a little bit for that and, perhaps, for other reasons. I’m very interested to know what implications that decision has.

Yu: You raise a very fascinating question, Ron. Now the Ministry of Education requires that the design institute needs a certificate, a separate CEO, and a separate faculty or staff. At Turenscape, we are exactly what the ministry tried to do. Turenscape is actually a private practice. It’s not affiliated to Beijing University. Financially, we have no relationship. The reason for that is we want to make it clear that we have no interest conflict.

Jost: You do share a building with the university, don’t you?

Yu: We share the building, but the building is paid for by Turenscape. Not by the school. So we have a different model compared to other schools. We have this partnership. Instead of putting the practice in the school, we actually have a separate practice. And the students are not allowed to practice, but they are supported to do research with the designer. They have no obligation to do any design during the process. I think we have different models compared to Binyi or Hu Jie.

Hu: At Tsinghua, the model is different than Peking University, because the Tsinghua Urban Planning and Design Institute is owned by Tsinghua University and it’s like a government institute. Right now, the professors are still working on the practice, even though they try to separate the name and the duty—like a CEO cannot be a professor. I would say it’s not really hurting the relationship.

Sometimes the young teachers are not high paid. They are trying to do more practice to make money, and then spend less time teaching the students. This makes the students angry and the university angry. But from my point of view, I do encourage experienced design leaders who already have 20 to 30 years’ design experience to come to the school to teach, because students welcome those kinds of practitioners. They have a lot more experience, directly from the first line, and can give the experience to the students.

Liu: At Tongji we are in between. We have the design and planning institute, which belongs to Tongji University. Also, we have some private firms, which are owned by the professors.

Jost: With these models where students are practicing, when do they begin working for the institute or firm? Are they compensated?

Hu: At Tsinghua, students at the graduate level and undergraduates in their third and fourth years are compensated to work at the institute, particularly during summer and winter vacation. After their first year, graduate students may work at the institute as much as they want and are compensated. In the last year of the graduate program, they are required to practice for half a year.

Yu: In my case, we have no students practicing in Turenscape. Only after they graduate do we allow them to practice.

Liu: For Tongji, things are kind of different. For the undergraduate, from their third year, the students get real projects for their design studio. But the proposal does not go to the client. We just give them the opportunity to use real projects to learn. Even the postgraduate student, their work cannot satisfy the client. For PhDs, yes, their work can go to the market.

The Matter of PhDs

Henderson: Since Binyi has brought up the PhD, you know there are very few PhD programs for landscape architecture in North America. I think there’s a strong structure for PhD education at many of the Chinese universities. I have a sense that as more and more universities in the United States are looking for new faculty to be PhD qualified, Chinese PhDs in landscape architecture will begin to populate American universities because they will have the credentials and the qualifications of the PhD in greater quantity than those in North America. So I’m interested to know the thoughts from everyone else.

Liu: In China we need teachers. Professors need to have a PhD at 80 to 90 percent of universities in China nowadays. So, our PhDs seldom go to the United States. Every year my program has 12 to 15 PhD candidates. After graduation, most of them just go to the universities here to be a teacher.

Steiner: There are only four, maybe five programs where you can get a PhD in landscape architecture in the United States, depending on how you count them. And probably, they’re graduating, my hunch is, maybe altogether three a year. A lot of American landscape architects, because there are so few [PhD programs] in the United States, have gone to Europe or have gone into geography or architecture. My hunch is that there’s going to be a market for Americans going to China for PhDs.

Liu: So far in China there are only 19 programs that have landscape architecture PhD programs.

Steiner: Still, 19 is four times more programs in China than in the United States.

Hu: I would say in the future, I don’t see many opportunities for Chinese practitioners or educators to go to the United States to be a teacher. I would say more teachers probably come from the United States and teach in Chinese universities.

Jost: Will it be important for those people to have some knowledge of the Chinese language?

Hu: In Tsinghua [Chinese] is not required.

Liu: Chinese students, after high school nowadays, their English speaking and understanding is very good.

Accreditation in China

Jost: I have heard from people who handle applications at U.S. programs that they aren’t always sure what students know coming from a Chinese landscape architecture program. Some of the students have the same skills that an American graduate would have; other students will say they have a bachelor’s in landscape architecture and it will end up being something closer to a landscape painting background.

Liu: We set up a committee for education in landscape architecture in China just last year. We are doing three things. One is accreditation for landscape architecture education. Another thing is, we are trying to issue a kind of standard for the curriculum for landscape architects. And also another thing is a ranking system for recognizing which universities are good, which universities are not.

Jost: Kongjian and Jie Hu, are you supporting this accreditation effort?

Hu: Yes. In Tsinghua there are many students after graduation that go to the United States. There is a very high proportion, and we are trying to match the credits in architecture and landscape architecture to the U.S.’s system.

Jost: Who should be the accrediting agency?

Liu: In China, the landscape architecture education is managed by the government. There are three levels that control the education and all that belongs to the government. The accreditation document will be issued eventually by the different levels of the government.

Yu: He said it’s government accreditation, is that right?

Jost: Yes, that’s what they’re working toward.

Yu: Ah. Well, I have a totally different opinion on this. Accreditation should be done by the society of educators, not by the government. That’s the problem. That’s the situation today in China; we have this bureaucratic system that tries to control, to organize, to make it all ordered.

Liu: Yes, I agree. That’s a phenomenon…[laughs]…I agree with Kongjian. I have the same feeling. But on the other hand, the government is still listening to what we say. It’s listening to the academic field.

Yu: This bureaucratic system will never work. Eventually it will become a power struggle. Just in 1997, the ministry tried to cut the profession. How can they know what kind of accreditation we need? We have people from horticulture, from geography, from environmental design, and each of them has a different understanding about the profession. How can we make accreditation? If you give accreditations, then you will kill some innovative programs. You will have one centralized program instead of diverse programs. Right now we need diversity and more innovative programs instead of just programs based on the traditional models.

Jost: What do other people think about putting off accreditation so it doesn’t kill the diversity of what landscape architecture is becoming in China?

Hu: I can give my personal opinion. Right now in China, the architects have a professional registration. Urban planners also have a professional registration. Only landscape architecture does not have it. There is no law to help the landscape architects practice. And also, there are no standards for landscape architecture practice and how to evaluate the practice. I would say right now it’s still immature for the market to do registration for one standard for landscape architecture practice. It is too early to do that.

Yu: Certainly we need accreditation; the problem is who’s going to do accreditation. We really need a more democratic organization that can give justice to the profession instead of a power-struggling bureaucratic system. I want to make it clear: We need accreditation, and it should be as soon as possible. But I’d rather allow a situation without accreditation than have a wrong accreditation.

I think the new government will give us more hope that the situation may change a little bit, which means the organizations, or societies, or professional associations may become more allowed to do something by themselves. Right now, any kind of professional organization [in China] is basically a government organization. I hope we can change that in the coming years.

What China Can Teach Americans

Jost: We’ve heard a lot about what China can learn from the United States, but what is the United States learning from China?

Hu: China has a very long history in philosophy and the arts. If we can introduce more about the long history of the culture and also the more visual, poetic, symbolic, and [picturesque] approach to the landscape, I would say that would benefit the U.S. system.

Steiner: One obvious thing that didn’t really sink in until I visited a couple of times is just the great diversity in China. Chinese people don’t speak with one voice, and they don’t always agree. I think the stereotype of China had been one of a very homogenous culture, and I think one of the things that’s important to learn is it’s not. It’s a very diverse, very rich, very exciting culture.

Henderson: Several of our colleagues are winning awards on projects completed in China. They’re winning awards not only in North America but all over the world. I think there’s a kind of ambition about the potential landscape architecture has on the national stage in China. I believe that landscape architects in China have found a way to lead in the design of cities and territories in a role more strongly than in almost any other nation in the world, and it’s happened very quickly. I think it’s quite an amazing accomplishment.

Wang: When I went to the United States, I heard a lot of conversations about smart growth, New Urbanism, and cluster development. These concepts were considered as new ideas in the United States. My opinion is: Why is this new? It’s all happening in China. We’re doing this all the time. So I think that’s maybe one part. If the United States wants to know what can happen with that kind of concept, that’s one thing China can offer. Also, many of my friends in the United States complain about practice in the United States. It’s all local and all the decision making is local decision making—especially about the sustainable and ecological planning ideas. Sometimes the big ideas, you cannot achieve easily in the United States. But they can be achieved very easily in China due to the top-down decision-making process. I don’t know if this is one thing that should be learned from China, but I feel that there’s something in the middle, between the top-down process and the bottom-up decision-making process.

Yu: The CCPC, the communist party congress, has listed “national ecological security” and “nation beautiful” as [part] of five major tasks for next five years. Now that’s important because ecological security actually, it comes from my doctoral dissertation. It’s a long story, but what I would say is, how can the top leader accept ideas from the professors? That’s one thing the United States can maybe learn from the Chinese decision-making system. We are not so democratic, but sometimes more efficient. When you say something and it’s a good idea and it’s a big idea, maybe it can pick up immediately and become a nationwide movement. But on the other hand, for something like accreditation, something like program building, something like professional education, you really need a more democratic system. Right now, the top-down system doesn’t work for education. So, I think we need a balance and we can learn from the two countries.

Liu: There are so many beautiful landscapes in China that are just like Chinese paintings, very beautiful. China has a long history, a rich culture, a tradition of landscape literature and art. I appreciate what my country has. But on the other hand I really appreciate the landscape science and technology, the rational thinking regarding landscapes in the United States. So I think the two countries can learn from each other in the future. As an educator, I would like to devote mysel

6 thoughts on “The Great Exchange”

  1. Interesting conversation and insights. Having seen the desecration of land in China one hopes that expansion and growth can be tempered with an holistic design approach.

  2. First visit gives you a feeling that all are copied, Second visit makes you wonder how they can repeatedly perform this drama, Third visit brings you to the ground that China is one of the oldest country, may be it is all real, not just a copy or drama, keep visiting you will learn to understand China, there are many things to learn from China and the Chinese !

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