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“One Month in China”

Nathan Portlock, 2010, Architecture

I’ve been working in Nanjing for a month now, and I promised many of you a letter from China.

Work as an architect anywhere in China has to be a learning experience, but at AZL it is incredible. As one of the two foreigners in the office, I am assigned conceptual and schematic design work which is fun and interesting. I spend time discussing my designs with Professor Zhanglei, so I can learn his architectural theory. The Professor is very respected domestically and thought to be one of the top design architects in China. The Italian company Alessi recently commissioned plates from the ten Chinese architects thought to be at the forefront of Chinese design, and Zhanglei was among those selected. All this said, I don’t foresee us taking up many projects outside China since business is so good domestically. The non-government clients are usually young businessmen, unaccustomed to having money, so the Professor usually tells them what they want and bullies them into splurging for innovative design.

My first few days in the office were a bit tough, I must admit. At first glance, they have none of the tools Penn has spoiled me with for the past four years. No plotter, no laser cutter, no mill, no 3D printer, and of course no woodshop. Also, to be fair, I’d never really had a real architecture job before. On the first day they gave me some digital topography maps and site photos, then told me to design as many 200square meter houses as I could to fit onto a 46000sqm site with an FAR of 4.7. I had no idea what this meant—even the concept of how big a square meter is—but after a meeting with the Professor, everything became much more clear. When I started to build a sketch model to experiment with volumes on the site, an intern sat next to me and offered to help. Little did I know that the 12 interns are way better than any of the resources Penn provided. They sit diligently at their intern table and wait for the architects to give them models to build, drawings to dimension and annotate, and files to render.

Which brings me to my other point. In my emails with the company before I arrived, I believed they hired me as an intern. In America with a BA in architecture, the most I can hope for is an Architectural Intern or maybe a CAD Technician. I assumed I had a desk at the front of the office simply because I was the Chinese-speaking foreigner that our guests and clients need to see when they walk in, and that I had an expensive new computer because of the location of my desk. It wasn’t until a few days in when I got my business cards that I realized I am an Architect, a position that I won’t be able to get in America for many more years.

However, our education systems are completely different, and China knows that its needs serious reform. From a very early age, Chinese students study for rigorous standardized tests, and therefore their teachers probably teach to them. After countless tests and two decades of school designed for such tests, it is hard to graduate with individuality. Most of the portfolios I’ve seen are shockingly elaborate, long and detailed, and full of intricate models, but lack either theory or anything to make them stand out from any others. Many of my coworkers seem to think similarly, and see me as a foreign species capable of original ideas, like Zhanglei and the other foreigners he brings on every year. For example, on one site there was a rustic stone retaining wall built into the landscape. From pictures, I could tell it had been there for centuries and was obviously succeeding at preventing erosion of the peasants’ crops. In college, we studied cultural ecology and the necessity of the site in the identity of the design. I suggested we incorporate this into our design, both physically and in material choices, but they didn’t understand. The wall was old and dirty, they said, and might remind clients of poor people. Instead, my colleagues’ designs rerouted the nearby river closer to our site and built new mountains for scenery out of the excavated earth. When Professor Zhang returned from Milan, he threw out their ideas, and said next time he might try to convince the client to keep something from the peasants they displaced.


Nanjing is a very pleasant city, and I find that life here is much more comfortable than most other Chinese cities I’ve visited. It has been the capital of the empire for various epochs, from the Song Dynasty to the Chinese Nationalist Party pre-1949. The Kuomintang planned cities differently than the Communists, with narrower streets, less pavement, and less destruction. Some say that Nanjing is China’s only Blue city, whereas the rest are Red. In its new metro system, Line 1 is blue while other Chinese city’s first subway line is always red. All the streets are lined with big, old trees like European cities, and there aren’t as many people or cars as larger cities. There are lots of historical places to visit and the Rape Museum (literally, Memorial for Compatriots Killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression), but my favorite is Xuanwu Lake. The huge lake is surrounded by the Ming city walls, pagodas, mountains, and the world’s seventh-tallest skyscraper. It reminds me of a cross between New York’s Central Park, the Great Wall, and Shanghai’s Pudong skyscraper district.

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