For Ascent’s Marco Urieta-Leon, two months in China broadened his perspective of how architecture impacts human environments.
At Ascent Architecture & Interiors, we understand that it’s our experiences that shape our approach to architecture and life. In this installment of “Architecture Abroad,” we’ll take a journey with Marco Urieta-Leon, Assoc. AIA, and learn how a college trip to China taught him lessons he still uses today.
We all know how busy and exhausting the end-of-a-college term can be. Back in 2012, Marco took it a step further when he finished his semester, hopped onto a 12-hour flight with some classmates, and traveled to China, where he spent two months studying the architecture.
For eight weeks, Marco and his classmates never stopped. They spent the first week touring different areas of Beijing, China’s capital city, where he says they “visited numerous sites to the point of exhaustion each day.” While there, Marco
observed “how quickly a major event like the Olympics can transform the urban fabric, while holding onto its roots at places like the Forbidden City and the Emperor’s Palace.” Seeing this sparked discussion about how explosive development and growth revealed stark contrasts in surrounding areas.
From Beijing, Marco headed to the port city of Tianjin. The wide spectrum of architectural styles struck him most, along with how China differed from what he’d seen in the United States.
“You could find everything from Colonial architecture to modern concert halls within the same area,” he says.
In other areas, the city opted for a different approach. “Instead of displacing all of the traditional housing, they converted part of it into a market for vendors,” Marco says. “Although there is a clear difference between its neighboring buildings, this served to be a successful place for the market, and is very popular.”
Juxtaposition such as this remained a theme throughout the rest of Marco’s trip. After the first couple weeks of traveling, he and his class spent more than a month at Chongqing University, where they studied urban design and redesigned a hillside neighborhood. Marco notes that Chongqing featured a variety of neighborhood types. For example, new luxury condominiums were developed on hillsides, displacing entire neighborhoods, while remnants of the old neighborhoods remained visible on the city’s outskirts.
To end the trip, Marco visited Shanghai, which provided intricate architecture to study, from traditional buildings to modern feats of design, technology, and engineering. “From a design perspective, I was amazed at how easily one could travel between distinct neighborhoods using subways, but even further at how easy it was to find everything (you needed) in one neighborhood superblock,” he said. “I believe there are many areas in the U.S. that could be designed with the philosophy of having everything you need accessible without a car.”
Looking back, Marco remembers vividly how China’s cities can each contain traditional forms next door to high-rises. While cities all over the world have taken different approaches to growing populations, this was China’s approach, he says. One of the country’s concerns is the conservation of traditional spaces, and how to
integrate those spaces in a modern urban environment. “Beijing is a clear example of urban design radiating outwards from the old walled city in a ringed design, leaving the old walled city in the center,” he says.
Throughout his trip, Marco saw repeatedly how different spaces can require varied approaches to the integration of history and modernity, and he brought this lesson home with him. “The design principle of integrating a community and creating a network, even with an enormous population, is possible,” he explains. “Integrating and engaging the user is vital to making successful spaces, while framing our built environment and buildings is key to a successful design in both urban and non-urban environments.”
As we have said before, travel can have a huge impact on how our team members view architecture and building design, and we firmly believe that our work can only benefit as a result. Marco’s travels to China, and the experiences he has shared with the rest of the Ascent Architecture & Interiors team, give us all a unique and fresh perspective of architecture and design.