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Shanghai Calling: Architectural education in China

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Architectural education in China differs significantly to the UK, writes student Eleanor Jolliffe

Architectural education in China, like much of the country itself, is both familiar and yet startlingly different. In structure architectural education is not too different with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, work experience in between, followed by further experience and a professional exam. Where it starts to differ is in the lengths and content of each section.

The undergraduate degree lasts for five years including one year of work experience (it can vary slightly between universities). The first two years of this degree are more general in common with all Chinese undergraduate degrees. It includes maths, science,english and humanities with extra classes in art, drawing and design for architecture students. The final two or three years are more specialised and include the sort of courses we would recognise in the UK.

There is a significantly greater portion of drawing and studying the buildings of ‘master architects’ than in the UK

I have not been able to work out how much individual design is encouraged as it is a relative term and the students I have spoken to wouldn’t expect anything different. From what I can glean though there is a significantly greater portion of drawing and studying the buildings of ‘master architects’ than in the UK. They do however have qualified architects as tutors and often do internships at their tutors’ firms.

I should note here that the infamous Chinese copying is a big cultural difference. Here copying indicates that you view the original author as a master, so is in fact quite a compliment.

Here copying indicates that you view the original author as a master

I know relatively little about the postgraduate section but it seems to be similar to the UK in terms of greater specialisation. It seems to vary significantly between universities and tutors and some postgraduate degrees are more heavily ‘in practice’ than others.

Eight years in practice is required before the professional exams can be taken. Whilst only an architect can oversee projects this time period leads to large teams of ‘assistant architects’ with one hassled ‘architect’ flying between projects and signing off on them. In the team of thirty or forty in which I work we have just one qualified ‘architect’. There are many other highly competent people in the team but the exam (apparently) involves memorising the majority of the building code and codes of professional conduct. There is one highly competent architect in my team who has so far failed three times.

A friend in my office finished her undergraduate degree at Shanghai university a year ago and is considering her options for postgraduate for next year. She is hoping to study in the UK as she feels the creative education there will be better. She has the same complaints and praises of her undergraduate as any UK architecture student but felt that a bit more creative freedom would have been good. She also feels that experience outside of China will set her apart from the tens of thousands of other architecture students graduating in China every year.

A second year student I spoke to has chosen to do her entire training in China but in the UK system through Nottingham university’s Ningbo campus. She was too nervous to move abroad but felt that the UK system created better designers than the Chinese system. Foreign universities and excellent English skills also add considerable weight to a Chinese CV.

Foreign architects are not trained to design at the scale and speed required in China

On the other hand I have spoken to students and architects who feel that foreign architects are not trained to design at the scale and speed required in China. Quantity and speed of output is often considered more vital than quality and considered concepts in a society that sees most building typologies as only semi permanent.

It surprises me how long it takes to fully qualify in a country where everything else happens at the speed of light. Perhaps, much like the UK, society and technology has overtaken the system. Unlike the UK everyone here is far too busy to worry about it too much and has found a way of working within and yet around the system, adaptation by attrition. I somehow doubt this is the way we will go about changing the system in the UK.

  • Eleanor Jolliffe has recently completed her Part I at Nottingham University. She is currently doing an internship in Shanghai.
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