The Beijing Urban Design Studio: 20 Years of International Collaboration

An exhibition of drawings and photos documenting twenty years of student work on sites across the city of the Beijing is on view at the Wolk Gallery through September 14, 2007.

Originally organized to mark the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Urban Design Studio – a joint program between MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning and the Tsinghua University School of Architecture in Beijing – the exhibit was mounted at the City of Beijing Planning Exhibition Center during last summer’s studio. The revised version now at the Wolk retains the flavor of its origin and also includes proposals for the sites the students worked on, along with a projection of the 2006 studio at work.

As illustrated in the students’ drawings and photographs, the face of Beijing has changed dramatically over the past twenty years, from an ancient capital of hutongs and courtyard homes to a global city about to host the Olympic games. Throughout this transition, the studio has maintained its focus on the design of homes and neighborhoods, providing alternative models to the sterile modern towers that have come to dominate the landscape.

In 2006, the studio focused on the issue of Beijing’s vast migrant population, by preparing an urban design and development plan for the Sun Palace neighborhood in the rapidly growing area of northeast Beijing. Sun Palace is an urban village, a remnant of the agricultural past that now houses almost 5000 migrant workers and their families living in courtyard houses, many still owned by former farmers. Sun Palace residents work in construction and service industries but cannot afford conventional housing. Nearby a new subway stop is under construction, and high rise buildings press in.

The studio addressed whether this resource of affordable housing and traditional culture can be maintained and how to balance transit-oriented development at the subway with the needs of the neighborhood. To research these questions, students interacted with local residents, city officials and experts on transportation and real estate. They assessed strategic options for the neighborhood and proposed comprehensive plans for the design and development of Sun Palace. Proposals ranged from establishing the area as a regional logistics center to creating a living and working cultural oasis in Beijing.

Since 1985, close to 400 students and faculty have taken part in the studio, making it one of the most enduring academic programs between the US and China. Studio work is accomplished by interdisciplinary teams combining skills in urban design, architecture, land use planning, transportation, urban sociology and real estate development; Tsinghua students who participate in the studio also help with understanding the social issues and language. The Beijing City Planning Institute, responsible for strategic planning in the city, participates in the studio as the client.

The studio is led by MIT professors Dennis Frenchman and Jan Wampler – who have been involved in the program since 1987 and 1992, respectively – and by Professors Wu Liangyong, Zhang Jie and Shan Jun of Tsinghua University. Other MIT faculty have included John de Monchaux and Chris Zegras, and former faculty members Gary Hack (who founded the studio), Paul Lukez and Ric Richardson.