Wu Wei: Chinese Landscape Architect and Professor at Tongji University
by Jon Bryan Burley, FASLA

I first had the opportunity to meet Wu Wei at the 1st International Landscape Studies Education Symposium, October 28-29, 2005, at Tongji University in Shanghai, China. He was one of the symposium hosts.  Wu Wei is a professor at the Tongji University, which has a valued reputation in architecture and urban planning, and has a growing reputation in landscape architecture. He is also a practicing landscape architect.

I discovered that Professor Wu Wei was very well liked by his students as he balanced practical skill with the intellectual needs of the students and encouraged his students to grow as individuals. Students appreciated his individual attention and creativity. Wu Wei could get his students to think creatively and develop conceptual skills as a matter of course.

Expectations for professors in China are somewhat different than expectations in the West. While the West values landscape architecture professors foremost as academics, the Chinese government and developers seek the professional skills of professors for planning and design projects. Many times the professor is encouraged to use the design studio classroom as an opportunity for students to explore real world opportunities.

While many designers in China are extremely skilled in creating the impressive, visually stimulating projects that are highly valued by clients, some Chinese designers are still learning to incorporate ecological considerations and address social needs in their projects. By contrast, Wu Wei is a highly sensitive site designer who is also knowledgeable about ecology and social concerns. Professor Wu Wei is involved in many projects with a trusted team of dedicated designers. His company office is near the campus

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Dr. Jon Burley and Professor Wu Wei outside Wu Wei’s office. Copyright 2007, Jon Bryan Burley all rights preserved, used by permission.

One of Wu Wei’s projects is on the Tongji University campus. It is a small open space in the center of the campus that is bounded by a canal, library, and cafeteria. The project has three main threads:

• The first thread focuses on the need for a water canal system through the campus. The campus is part of the greater Yangtze River delta region that incorporates mud flats and channelized water. Professor Wu Wei designed the channelized water to be a flowing symbolic source in the open space.
• The second thread focuses on the importance of water, especially drinking water. While in winter Shanghai is near freezing, in summer Shanghai is very hot and steamy. Drinking water sources are very important on campus. Professor Wu Wei wanted those who drink the water to have an opportunity to contemplate the origin of the water.
• The third thread focuses on the location of the project at a university and its impact on the future for students, alumni, professors, and the country. The space provides a meeting place for individuals to interact on the Tongji campus and includes a rich palette of plant materials and hardscape features that invoke an image of being Chinese.

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A campus setting designed by Professor Wu Wei symbolizing the source of the channelized water. Copyright 2005, Jon Bryan Burley all rights preserved, used by permission.

I visited the completed site with Wu Wei, who explained the various adjustments in the project during construction. He noted that the site has become very popular. Very few spaces anywhere in China have grass on which visitors can sit. The students have nicknamed it “Lovers Slope.”  It is a place for couples and friends to meet, relax, watch people, and enjoy the university atmosphere. I also enjoyed sitting in the park, playing my travelling guitar, and chatting with people who were curious about my attire, cowboy boots, guitar, and sketchbook with images from around the world.

For traditionalists, the park may seem unsettling with its new forms, treatment of boulders, and sloping lawns. But because the park is clearly appreciated by the students, even the traditionalists have accepted its special character. 

Earlier in the day, I had sketched Wu Wei’s park as three little boys looked on. At the end of the drawing, they each wanted one of my cigars (which I did not give), and an American quarter (which I did give). The boys seemed content that I had come to their country to draw and to speak at the local university. If they had trouble communicating an idea to me, they requested a nearby student to translate into English. Most of the Tongji students can speak some English and seemed happy to practice it with me. On the way back to the auditorium, Wu Wei examined my drawing and autographed the drawing for me. For both of us, the day was special indeed.

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A drawing by Jon Burley of the park designed (and autographed by) Wu Wei. Copyright 2005, Jon Bryan Burley all rights preserved, used by permission.

Jon Bryan Burley, FASLA, is an Associate Professor in the School of Planning, Design, and Construction at Michigan State University. He can be reached at: burleyj@msu.edu.

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