Just days ago, when the Hyatt Foundation announced its 2012 Pritzker Prize winner, Wang Shu, we leafed through our AAO members’ programming records. Sure enough, Wang Shu made appearances at two AAO member organizations, Rice Design Alliance (RDA) and Dallas Architecture Forum (Forum) – part of a collaborative, multi-part investigation on Chinese architecture in fall 2011. While there are many ways to demonstrate the merits of the architecture organizations in the AAO network, consistently identifying design talent on the rise – before the big appearance fees – is certainly one indicator, and, in this regard, RDA and the Forum represent some of the best.
We caught up with RDA and Forum leaders, Linda Sylvan and Nate Eudaly, to learn more about their fall 2011 programming partnership.
AAO: How did Rice Design Alliance (RDA) come to consider this multiple-part series on China and its recent building practices?
Linda Sylvan (LS): A subcommittee of the RDA Programs Committee, consisting of faculty from the architecture schools at Rice and the University of Houston as well as design professionals, began meeting in spring 2010. The Committee was drawn to exploring China’s building boom post 1978, when the government finally ended decades of central planning and allowed its cities to grow in competition with each other and the global economy. The Chinese experience with explosive growth is not far removed from what Texas has been experiencing, too: our state’s population is expected to grow exponentially over the next few decades. We thought we could learn much from the Chinese experience. There’s been much criticism of Chinese urban planning and architecture during this period of growth because of the destruction of so many traditional structures, but there’s a small group of Chinese architects that are creating innovative projects largely influenced by their country’s vernacular architecture. It was expected that audiences, including those from emerging Chinese and Asian communities, could learn from China how to accommodate new buildings within the existing fabric of a city undergoing globalization. RDA then invited the Dallas Architecture Forum and the University of Texas-Austin School of Architecture to partner with us on the series.
AAO: So how did the actual partnership take shape?
Nate Eudaly (NE): The Dallas Architecture Forum (Forum) and the Rice Design Alliance (RDA) have a long history of collaborating together on programming, especially for our respective Lecture Series, and being members of AAO has certainly strengthened that relationship. With UT-Austin’s School of Architecture added as a third presenter, each speaker we invited was given the chance to lecture in Houston on a Wednesday, Dallas on Thursday, and then Austin the following Monday. The Forum, RDA, and UT-Austin all researched and pooled recommendations on speakers for the series, which was one of the reasons the program turned out so well. RDA extended the invitations to the final speakers we selected, and it took the lead in organizing and coordinating the series’ overall logistics, developing the master schedule and the international flight arrangements, with our two partner organizations handling all of the details, logistics, and expenses for the speakers’ time in our respective cities. RDA also produced collateral material for the overall series with input from us, which we used to bolster the publicity we prepared specific to our own organizations.
LS: By working together with partners and sharing transportation and other program costs RDA could much more easily afford to bring three visiting architects from China to Texas to participate in the series. The chance to pool the brain power from our respective organizations led to a much better series – and something worth much more than the savings from cost-sharing. Plus, in our experience, international travelers are more willing to extend their trips to see more of the United States. This latest group welcomed the opportunity to visit three of Texas’s largest cities, each very different from one another. Our location on the Gulf Coast can feel isolated at times, and our audience loves to hear from innovative people from around the world. The RDA lecture series always seeks to bring voices and ideas from outside Houston. Partnering on the delivery further complements this larger objective.
NE: I’d second that comment. Attempting to present a series like this, with international flight expenses for multiple speakers, would have been very expensive for the Forum itself. Having RDA and UT-Austin involved and splitting many of the larger costs three ways made the series much more doable. The frequent communication among the three organizations as the series was planned and presented was very important.
AAO: Did the complexity or investment in this speaker series give you good reason to do anything differently or explore additional opportunities?
LS: In contrast to the RDA’s lecture series, another of our core programs, our Cite publication, distinguishes itself through its steady focus on the Houston area and has a committed readership for that reason. The idea for this China lecture series seemed like a great way to push Cite into new territory. We sought to remain true to our audience and RDA's mission while looking well beyond our region. Funds from an NEA grant allowed Cite to send one of Houston's brightest design leaders, Christof Spieler, to China. He had no prior expertise on China, but he is an astute observer and knows what would be of greatest interest to our Houston audience. Rather than focus on star architecture, he looked at traditional streets, massive new developments, and efforts at place-making from the point of view of an ordinary pedestrian wandering through the cities. Much of the new China has been designed by foreign architects, including a great deal of work by the Houston office of SWA Group. Spieler’s contribution will appear in our upcoming issue of Cite, but here’s a quick snippet: “I spent two weeks in China last summer to see what these cities are like on the ground. I came away simultaneously impressed, depressed, startled, and awed. I was also left with an odd feeling of familiarity. We can see China as a way of looking at ourselves, a mirror reflecting our own cities back to us. In looking at Beijing or Shanghai, we see how another culture sees us. Often it’s an unsettling view." [Note: Learn more about Cite here.] Also for our members, we pursued a relationship with Cai Lian, the Consul for Cultural Affairs from the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in Houston. The Consulate publicized the lecture series through their sources, so we had a large Chinese presence at the lectures. We also hosted a RDA Membership Party with the Consul General in their building following one of the lectures, giving our members an opportunity to see their reception spaces.
Wang Shu with Patrick Peters
AAO: This is not the first time your organizations have gotten in front of architects before the broader world learns of their talents. Can you comment on this?
LS: You are correct – this was not the first time that RDA featured speakers before they become Pritzker Prize winners. We brought Richard Meier, Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, Rafael Moneo, Renzo Piano, and Glenn Murcutt to Houston – all before they won the grand prize for architecture. RDA has drawn great strength from the ideas and talents of its members, whom we ask to do extensive research to identify individuals on the cutting edge of the profession.
NE: Spotting talent on the rise is important to us; it’s a value our Forum members have come to expect. We’ve enjoyed the opportunity to bring to Dallas some of the same individuals Linda mentions. A few years ago, while exploring Japanese contributions, we were fortunate to welcome Kazuyo Sejima, who went on to receive the Pritzker, as well. We viewed this latest series as being a very vital one since China is certainly an epicenter of architectural activity in the 21st century. Bringing these architects to Texas was important for our members, and the geographical proximity and established relationships with RDA and UT-Austin made the series concept very appealing. I think it’s a capacity that should only grow with the advent of a resource like AAO and the now regular opportunities to meet up with program managers and curators working in other cities.
AAO: This series must have been an interesting opportunity for the guest speakers. What comments did they have to share?
LS: Pei Zhu is the leading designer of museums in China. The morning after his talk, he was given a personal tour of The Menil Collection by Karl Kilian, a longtime protégé of Dominique de Menil. He was interviewed after the tour under the great louvers of the Menil. He was deeply moved and talked at length about the building, and drew lines to his own work in China, in particular the Cai Guo-Qiang Courtyard House. Wang Shu, meanwhile, took great pleasure in speaking in the Mies-designed auditorium in The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston building, and the next morning he toured its campus snapping dozens of photographs for his records. He was especially intrigued by the Isamu Noguchi-designed sculpture garden.
AAO: Do you have any final comments for our readers and fellow AAO members?
LS: The secret to partnering – if you can call it a secret – is to start early, before any other program planning may be too far along to consider a collaboration. It is important that each sponsor organization has the opportunity to participate in the speaker selection process. I think the opportunities for collaboration are even greater today using the resources and networking possibilities with other AAO organizations, as getting to know peer organizations and their areas of focus is critical. Of course, it certainly helps when you can engage someone like Wang Shu, whose work is deeply moving and is so emblematic of what this series was trying to demonstrate. We’re all delighted that he continues to receive increasing recognition.