USC Architecture School Globally Engaging Students & Faculty Under Dean Ma’s Leadership

Qingyun Ma

Since arriving as the dean of the USC School of Architecture in 2007, Qingyun Ma has set an aggressive agenda for expanding the scope and skill set of the students and faculty of the architectural school. Three years later, Dean Ma continues to focus on integrating technology and sustainability, while organizing workshops around the world—establishing USC as a world class school of architecture. In the following VerdeX interview, Dean Ma details the mission of the USC School of Architecture and elaborates on some of the international and local design issues focusing the efforts of the school, including the rapid urbanization of China.

VerdeX: What have you done in three years as dean of the USC School of Architecture to make your program even more world class than it was before? What are the initiatives and accomplishments of which you are most proud?

Dean Ma: I am most proud of our graduate energy and research agenda, which spans between new technologies in design and in the manufacturing and building industries—how new technologies can be integrated by the digital process and targeted for environmental performance. Digital technology and sustainability are the two ends of the mission and focus of the graduate school. The platform to integrate those issues is the urban issue—how cities are affected by the way we have built and the way we monitor our energy. That is the main part of my mission.

I am now in Beijing and I will be in Shanghai next week to make that energy known and to make that a global discourse. I take a lot of time to spread the word around and also to extract expertise, thinkers, and projects around the world.

VerdeX: Given that you are doing this interview from Beijing today, please elaborate on the USC Architecture School China Studio program. What is the focus of this Global design studio?

Dean Ma: The agenda of the graduate school is carried forth on multiple fronts. One is the Global Studio, now running as part of the USC American Academy in China program. That program assumes that problems and challenges facing cities or the architectural industry have global dimensions. Only if we work from two fronts, in Los Angeles and other parts of the world, will we understand the problems and become more intelligent.

The studio in China is a very mobile workshop. It travels through four cities threaded by similar urban and environmental challenges. In Beijing, where I am now, the studio focuses on how the city has been transformed from one paradigm or model to another, and yet another, new level. Obviously, as a traditional city, it has very rigid structure throughout the city. When socialism, with its organized urban approach, came in, certain parts of the city had to give way to allocate or anchor the new type of city in terms of density and new organization. And yet, the economy today brings the city to a much more complicated, interactive, interconnected urban network. Because that happened on the two layers prior to it and because it changes so fast and at such scale, the problems, both in terms of solutions and concepts, are very potent and very vividly presented in front of the eyes of our students. We are taking advantage of this fresh happening of the city. Students become very excited, and students become much more productive. Every time students go back to Los Angeles, they look at the problems in Los Angeles with a fresh eye, sometimes even with a bigger ambition to improve.

VerdeX: Whatever concerns Los Angeles may have about density in Los Angeles, China must be concerned with the half billion Chinese moving to the urban centers with the attendant challenges for the built environment there. Are your graduate students confronting those challenges at that scale?

Dean Ma: Yes, conceptually. The rate of the increase of urbanization is enormous and threatening because, as students know, the current urban form and its process of construction is fairly devoid of systematic sustainability thinking. If the urbanization speed goes as it is—the city at its original scope will triple in terms of its original scope and density. That would be disastrous. There is huge urgency, although at an abstract level.

VerdeX: Los Angeles is home to at least a half a dozen leading architecture and engineering firms. How do you draw those firms and technologies into the education and research you are doing at USC?

Dean Ma: The school has a long tradition of connection to the profession. That is something that we are very proud of. Newly nurtured in the school is connecting that tradition with a very well strategized mission. For example, we are forming an advisory board under the USC Architectural Guild and a few other constituencies. The technology is sometimes newer than what the education system has access to, so through different offices, practices and studios, we bring them to the school. On the other hand, we are also trying to elevate on the digital design front, trying to consolidate and put together new software and output instruments, so we can represent what the industry would look for. This is a really technical process.

Also, this has not yet happened, but my colleagues and I are conceiving two centers. One is the DataShop, a center for digital design. In that platform we can be freer to connect to the leading industries. There are many firms that are at the cutting edge in terms of deployment of advanced digital technology. We are also conceiving what I call a Super Office Studio, which are graduate level studios taught by very intelligent practitioners throughout the region. They bring their projects and the way they approach the projects through technology to the classroom. Those are the two specific platforms we are trying to build to enhance the interaction with industries.

VerdeX: Both the USC Village and the new USC Health Service campuses are undergoing two massive planning processes. With the University not known presently for being a leader in sustainable planning or green facility design, how could the architecture school and you influence the evolution and development of these two USC master planned campuses?

Dean Ma: It is an unfortunate situation; the School of Architecture has not played an instrumental or influential role in the campaign or the construction process of the University. I don’t know why we haven’t been in that position. I can only look to the future to increase that dialogue and possibly to assist the university leadership to bring our academic agenda and our research excellence into the planning and building process.

In that process, the University is really a client of the project. There is a lot of commonality in the client in their way of building their buildings. It has to be handled very intelligently. The School of Architecture should form specific task forces and a form of new consultancy where the intellectual quality and realistic outlook of the school can be part of the process. We are grouping assets and dialogues together. Let’s see how we can achieve that goal.

It is very important for the School of Architecture to be a part of it to show the rest of the world that we are relevant. If we can’t even be relevant to the campus, how can we be relevant to the community outside the campus? It is a challenging task, but I am willing to take that on.

VerdeX: In an interview you did with The Planning Report three years ago, you said you wanted to significantly enlarge and professionalize USC’s landscape architecture program. What has been accomplished and what might be accomplished going forward?

Dean Ma: The biggest news I can report is very satisfactory. Our landscape degree program now has the official status of accreditation candidacy. We are in the process of getting accreditation, and it is going very positively. The accreditation team is recommending two to three years of accredited status for us to the accreditation board. That is a big accomplishment. Under that accreditation, we now have three programs running in the landscape graduate program: the post-professional, and the two and three-year  professional degree. The number of students has increased from less than ten people to almost 50. That population has diverse studio offerings, which enables us to recruit and attract excellent studio critics and full-time professors into the program. Now we can start to re-envision the agenda we set three years ago with a critical mass of students and instructors.

VerdeX: You mentioned the school’s focus on energy and technology. How might you better integrate the talent in other schools on USC’s campus with the School of Architecture’s programs to advance sustainability planning, design, and development?

Dean Ma: Integration is always a great vision, but when it comes to the University, every school has its own mission. Somehow their sustainability missions are circumscribed by the way they do things.  There are a lot of things happening on campus. And I hope they will be more integrated than they are now.
The role I hope the School of Architecture can bring is the role that architects always play in industry—to bring them together through design thinking. Design is treated as the intelligence and the collaborative platform to bring other researchers and voices together. That is a traditional role for architects. If we can follow that role, we will be much better, and the School of Architecture can lead the way to integrate this. Obviously this is a wish, and there is a lot of work to be done to fulfill that.

The second point is that, as I said earlier, our graduate school has expanded tremendously. We set a new PhD program two years ago. The PhD program is focused on the architectural approach in enclosures and monitoring of the energy profile of buildings. With the PhD program, the larger graduate population, and our faculty members—we have specifically hired two or three faculty members who represent the new species between design, sustainability, and digital technology—are now able to form research proposals. In the last two years, we have applied for all sorts of research proposals, from NSF to foundations. All research proposals are multi-discipline and cross-discipline in nature. We have collaborators, industries, and test beds to bring everyone together.

On campus, we have reached out to the other schools as well. Through the research initiatives, the real integration between faculty members can be formed. Although the faculty has such an organic connection between them in their research, the culture of integration can be improved. That is the role the School of Architecture is playing, and I hope to increase that and continue to invest in that.

VerdeX: Clearly, one of the enticements USC offered to induce you to accept the deanship was that you were able to carry on your architecture practice in China. Address the insights you have gained from continuing to do that, as well as the challenges in trying to do that, given you seem to work 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Dean Ma: The advantage of keeping a practice while holding this position is in constantly getting feedback from society, as represented by my multiple clients. That constantly refreshes my understanding of what society needs and what the industry is up to. Obviously, dealing with students and faculty is exciting, but by encountering other forces, the group of my clients, I get a different angle.

In terms of how to practice, I am forwarding my work into sketching and communicating through electronic devices. I am taking a “hands-off” approach. I do not do the traditional architect morality of “hands-on.” I am developing the dimensions of a hands-off practice. I’ll get back to you when I develop the whole philosophy and its processes. I am giving a lecture this afternoon called, “Sketch and Stretch.” When I sketch I have a natural tendency to stretch, both in the process of thinking and delivering. Stretching allows me to, both in terms of space and time, create a process where I can participate in the process on my terms rather than following the flow that is sometimes so automated by the design process. I am halfway through the concept and I will report back later. Two words: hands-off and stretch. •••