Academic Mary Jane Rooney travels to ChinaA ten-day visit to China with the Confucius Institute helped Mary Jane Rooney, Course Director at LSBU investigate new avenues for architectural education
One of the founding aims of the Confucius Institute at LSBU is to promote Chinese culture, and to encourage stronger links between London and China in a variety of different fields.
LSBU's Director of Architecture, Mary Jane Rooney, was keen to experience this. She oversees the development and delivery of a five-year course for over 400 students and took part in a ten-day summer exchange to Beijing and Harbin in China. Her decision to visit the country stemmed from her interest in traditional Chinese architecture, along with the landscape tradition, traditional Chinese medicine, Tai Chi and Chinese food. However, she had never been to China before, and described it as 'unknown' to her before she took part in the Summer School programme.
"I had an extraordinary visit, which greatly deepened my knowledge of Chinese language and people," she says of her time in China. "The programme introduced language, people and culture in a very memorable way. It was an explosion of visual and acoustic sensations, and meetings with a wide range of people who generously introduced me to Chinese culture."
Mary felt that all of her senses underwent some form of educational experience as part of her visit. As well as the visual stimulation provided by sights such as sunset at the summer palace in Beijing and the labyrinthine quality of the Forbidden City, she recalls the fragrance of jasmine tea contrasting with aromatic oils in teahouses and the taste of the dumplings cooked by the host family she stayed with.
"The sound of spoken Mandarin is also a lasting memory," she recalls, "as well as the Beijing Opera and the sounds of the marketplaces we visited. Climbing the Great Wall of China, the sensation of ink and horsehair during calligraphy and failing to use chopsticks successfully also stick in the mind!"
I was fascinated by the contrasting experiences of Beijing and Harbin.
As a registered architect, it is little wonder that Mary took a particularly keen interest in the architecture of the places she visited. "The speed of development processes hurtling towards the future and the rapidly changing cities contrasted with the qualities of a very enduring Confucian culture."
Mary is now investigating ways to develop links between LSBU and the Chinese School of Architecture. She would like to take English students to work on a design project in Beijing, as well as welcoming more Chinese students onto her own course at LSBU. She met with a government official and chief architect while in China to discuss the possibility of opening a new international school, and hopes to contribute to it, or a programme similar to it.
Since her return, Mary has begun making plans to contact Chinese universities that run architecture degrees to see if links can be developed, perhaps involving design workshops and differences in approaches to the subject. Her aim is to embed some of her experiences into the teaching of architecture at LSBU, giving graduates a broader, global look at the industry they will enter.
Journey of discovery
Mary is effusive in her praise of the programme, and quick to recommend it to anyone who is considering undertaking an exchange.
"There are many differences between eastern and western culture," she says, "and we are all guests on a journey of discovery. Things are going to be different, but your hosts will do all that they can to ensure you have a safe and exciting trip."