In June 2005,
Robin Abrams, associate professor of architecture at Texas A&M University,
traveled to China with three Ph.D. students Bin Kang, Xuemei Zhu and
Zhipeng Lu, to work on a number of research initiatives addressing issues
of neighborhood conservation, design and housing.
The trip was made possible from an International Research Travel
Assistance Grant (IRTAG) from Texas A&M and by funding from
the College Research and Interdisciplinary Council.
The group’s itinerary included trips to Hong Kong, Guangzhou,
Nanjing, Suzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. Abrams was investigating
and documenting the three eras of Chinese housing and neighborhood
design — Imperial, Soviet, and Contemporary.
“Chinese cities are facing unprecedented demands for housing
provision, with each city coping in different ways, Abrams explained. “Guangzhou,
the city most affected by rapid growth and insurgence of ‘floating
population’ is tearing down its historic fabric at a frightening
rate, moving low-income residents to remote suburbs and building
enormous gated high-rise towers for middle income residents.
They are also double-decking city streets to handle increased
While Shanghai also has a high-rise program, in contrast to
Guangzhou, the city has implemented a “Red Roof” program.
“They are attempting to upgrade much of the Soviet housing
through paint, elevators, balconies and shiny red tile roofs.
This is all occurring on a scale that a western urban designer
finds difficult to comprehend,” Abrams said. “I realized
rather quickly that a western ‘expert,’ in many ways,
has little to contribute to the urgency and massive scale of
Chinese cities, although there are parallels to post-war Britain,
my other research focus.
“I found that housing solutions that were proven unsuccessful
in Britain — high-rise living for example — seem
to be not only acceptable to the Chinese population, but desired,” she
continued. “This brings up several further research questions,
relating to the social logic behind housing acceptability – which
is the direction my research has now taken.”
Also traveling with Abrams was Bin Kang, a doctoral student
who took the opportunity to studying two housing communities
by the same developer in the Guangzhou suburbs — one from
the very end of the Soviet era, the other new.
“They were only four years apart in construction, but
light years apart in terms of quality of the external environment,” Abrams
Kang was specifically interested in the quality and use of outdoor
spaces, and its affect on neighborliness and sense of belonging.
Xuemei Zhu and Zhipeng Lu, Abrams’ other traveling companions,
were engaged in very preliminary research for their dissertations.
Zhu was studying how children move about the city, and Lu’s
was interested in the elderly, and how they engage with the city.
While in China, Abrams lectured on housing and urban design,
reviewed studio work, and met with architecture students and
faculty at the University of Hong Kong, South China Technical
University in Guangzhou and Nanjing and Tsinghua universities
“It was a joy to work with students, both undergraduate
and graduate, who impressed me not just with their command of
English, but with their enthusiasm for learning,” Abrams
All four travelers returned to Beijing in November 2005 to share
their research in the US/China Relations Scholarly Exchange sponsored
by Texas A&M.