Weijen Wang's 11 architecture students are getting a lesson in real-world school design that's not quite what they signed on for (just ask them). Not least because the clients are in China—in Sichuan Province's Beichuan County, which suffered a devastating earthquake last May.
The phrase "ad hoc" comes up several times as Wang—a visiting associate professor at MIT, an associate professor at Hong Kong University, and principal of his own firm—describes his responses to what's transpired since MIT School of Architecture + Planning dean Yung Ho Chang (a friend of 20 years) asked him in June to lead a third-year M.Arch. studio in designing a middle school for Beichuan. First, there was a change in program, from a remote boarding school for 1,000 students to a regional middle and high school serving 5,000. Then, they lost one collaborating university (although Beijing's Tsinghua University remains a partner). Next, a central government organization came on as a sponsor, and the project even roused the interest of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. And the "shifting sands" continue to change, says Wang, who has designed several schools himself, including a temporary structure after a 1999 Taiwan earthquake.
Still, he presses on, making occasional journeys to China to finalize, as best he can, the details of his studio's October site visit, when, as ARCHITECT went to press, Wang's students were planning to spend a few days in Beijing and a few in Beichuan, exploring the site and meeting school leaders. In the meantime, Wang's students are working first on general classroom organization, then creating sectional studies (at 1:50 and 1:10 scales) to understand the tectonic and material qualities of what they will design.
Their instructor looks ahead to 2009, when he will return to China to see the school through to completion—perhaps with the help of one or more students. "There's a level of pragmatism [Wang] injected into the studio from the start," says student Ian Kaminski-Coughlin.