— Building and Planning

Mapping and an Educational Project


Forming Narragansett Bay                                       Flooding Providence                                                


This fall I am teaching a fourth year architecture studio titled ‘Natural Construction’ (自然建造) at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Although each professor is responsible for their own syllabus, an integral part of the coursework is a week long trip to the rural villages, where students produce a book of extensive survey documents. In the past these survey documents have provided the studio’s building language for the remaining 15 weeks, thereby designating a clear relationship between vernacular structures and a studio-wide definition for what is ‘natural.’ This relationship is visible in the work of Wang Shu, who has served as dean of the CAA School of Architecture since its founding ten years ago.

As the fourth year studio is completed right before students enter their thesis year, Natural Construction Studio plays a transitional role in each student’s education. And yet after discussions with faculty and former students, as well as seeing previous studios’ work, it seems clear that no one knows what the class should be specifically teaching. The fourth year architecture students are already extremely competent in drawing and modelling and, being at the China Academy of Art, they are well-versed in the language of vernacular building systems. Before their thesis, most students are developing their own visual language, differentiating themselves from their classmates, and producing work that will help them get a job after graduation. This is the difficulty of studying vernacular building systems in the contemporary design education system: the work has a tendency to stray toward individual acts of spectacle (nostalgia included), despite the best intentions of a larger academic structure aimed a the cultural rehabilitation and preservation of historical structures.

These problems seem to arise, in part, from the treatment of survey drawings as operative tools. In recording the rural villages as they exist in great technical detail, the survey becomes a kind of mausoleum of visual facts-to-be-deployed rather than interpreted as maps of a larger building culture. Landscape architect James Corner distinguishes between these forms of drawing as such:


“Mapping precipitates its most productive effects through a finding that is also a founding; its agency lies in neither reproduction nor imposition but rather in uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds. Thus, mapping unfolds potential; it re-makes territory over and over again, each time with new and diverse consequences. Not all maps accomplish this, however; some simply reproduce what is already known. These are more ‘tracings’ than maps, delineating patterns but revealing nothing new.”

James Corner. ‘The Agency of Mapping’


The idea here is that there is not, and cannot be, a neutral technique of surveying or representation; as soon as a survey document becomes a technical document or takes on a certain style, it works more as an operative ‘tracing’ rather than a process of understanding and synthesis. This is not to say that a technical survey is wrong, only that we ought to be aware of how those documents function in a school of architecture: what attitudes and forms of work it precipitates.

The two images shown above are my own survey-maps of Providence after reading Corner’s article. While these maps deal with much larger scales than the students in Natural Construction will (1:10,000 and 1:1,000), and of course very different locations (Zhejiang Province, CN and Providence, US), they represent a synthetic point of view which may prove critical to the rural project that the China Academy of Art is working on. At  these large scales, Providence’s most lasting and unique structures are its geological and natural formations. In ‘Forming Narragansett Bay,’ the northeast landscape is a rock surface eroded by thousands of years of glacial recess. In ‘Flooding Providence,’ the city’s urban development narrows the canal’s edges and widens the flood plain.

In Zhejiang Province today the vernacular housing structures already have this level of extended, far-reaching tectonic history. The mapping of this extensive history and opening up a discussion about it may serve students in a more synthetic understanding of ‘what’ rural space is and how it works, rather than the stylized effects of a technical survey. Ultimately, the politics of economic development programs make it very difficult for architects to work and affect change in the Chinese countryside. Without a doubt, these realities ought to be reflected in the survey and mapping of their vernacular systems such that they remain active spaces, culturally relevant, and not subject to continued social and material degradation.