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Eddy Perez | Photographer | Office of Communications & University Relations

LSU Interior Design Students Partner with Hunan University Students on Pair of Projects

They may be more than 7,000 miles apart, but third-year interior design students in the LSU College of Art & Design and their counterparts at Hunan University in China have at least one thing in common — they’ve been working on the same studio projects to design a conceptual resort hotel for an ecological park in China and a multi-use building for a main street in the heart of Cajun country.

The project is part of a unique cross-cultural exchange program that has not only kept students interested and motivated but has broadened their horizons by helping them recognize the similarities and differences of their cultures.

“It’s been a great project because it exposes the students to a different culture,” said Hunan-native Jun Zou, an associate professor in the LSU Department of Interior Design who came up with the idea for the exchange. “I think they have really enjoyed it. It adds a different dimension to their portfolio and a culture-exchange dimension to the design studio project. By exposing students to a drastically different culture — namely, Chinese culture — students become more sensitive and more appreciative to diverse culture and traditions while gaining more of an understanding of our own.”

The ecological park project was based on an actual park currently under construction in Meishan, located in the northwest region of the Hunan province. The Meishan region features unique natural landscapes blending to maintain aspects such as peaks, caves, rock formations, springs, waterfalls, cliffs, crags and rock erosion lakes.

The park project has been in the works for nearly three years and, when completed in 2010, will feature a complex of buildings dedicated to showcasing some of the unique cultural features of the region.

Zou said she was familiar with the project and knows its director, who is also a professor of design at Hunan University, so she arranged to do an exchange.

“We were lucky enough to be able to find the real and on-going project in China,” Zou said. “From my point of view, to understand a specific culture, the most effective way is not to visit the place or invite experts to come here to talk about it. It is to try working with things in that specific culture. This is an interesting and sometimes frustrating process — many barriers need to be overcome, gaps need to be filled and conflicts need to be resolved. By the end of the day, the final design becomes something that contains both Eastern elements and Western concepts blended harmonically. While the final design is very specific, the process spanned through the whole semester and should be most memorable and helpful for the students’ future careers.”

The project also has Zou’s personal touch, as she said the choice of the Meishan project reflects her long-time passion on the study of residential dwelling, which is very culturally oriented.

The fall studio program began with Zou giving her 18 students three hotel design schemes from which to choose. They also had to conduct considerable research on the area and its customs, as well as on the culture and architecture of south Louisiana. Zou said she wanted her students to draw parallels and recognize the similarities that exist between the regions. That was followed by three phases of design.

In the first phase, students used free hand to develop their concept statements, bubble and blocking diagrams and free sketches. Zou stressed the importance of incorporating materials, furniture and lighting that had specific Chinese characteristics. In the second phase of the project, students used computers to articulate their schematic designs. In the third phase, they used sophisticated three-dimensional modeling software to get a better idea of how their ideas were coming together.

“It’s very good for developing schematic details and also for the renderings, lighting and things like that,” Zou said of the modeling software.

Throughout the project, the students published their designs on a blog, where fellow students and the students and professor at Hunan University could critique them.

“They were able to look at their work and give feedback,” Zou said of the Hunan University class. “It was very helpful.”

This spring, the LSU and Hunan students have reversed roles and turned their attention to designing a multi-use building in the historic area of downtown Opelousas.          

Again, students began their projects by researching the culture and area of the Acadiana region. Currently, they are working on their designs of the building. The only difference is that this time, Zou and her class are critiquing the Chinese students’ drawings, instead of the other way around.

“Certainly, they aren’t native to the project, and we anticipate their product would be more typical Chinese, both for the process and for the outcome,” Zou said. “The parallel setting now offers a unique opportunity for our teachers to the compare and contrast, which ultimately benefits our future students for comparative studies.”

Students involved with the project have had glowing things to say about the cross-cultural program’s benefits.

“This project really made us examine both the cultural side as well as the ecological benefits of the hotels we were designing,” said Page Mullins of Natchez, Miss. “The Chinese culture is very attached to nature and its relationship to nature.”      

In that vein, Meggie Wardrop of Sugar Land, Texas said that one of the challenges of the project was the use of natural materials and natural patters in the design.

“We used materials like timber and natural stone, which are native to the Meishan area,” Wardrop said. “There was no glass or metal in the designs. There’s also a lot of symbolism in the artwork that reflects their relationship to nature.”

Muller and Wardrop said that the project also helped them to learn that there is more to the Chinese culture than the popular aspects.

“Most people hear China and think of the Great Wall of China or red lamps or things like that,” Wardrop said. “There’s a lot more to it.”

“It was a challenge to break through the culture barrier,” Mullins added. “Plus, we learned that it’s not just one culture there, but many different ones that work together.”

LSU Department of Interior Design head T.L. Ritchie lauded the project for its target of engaging the students in cultural research.

“One of the objectives of this project was to give the students a global perspective,” Ritchie said. “The world is getting smaller and smaller. This project offers the opportunity for the students to experience designing for another culture while comparing it to their own as well.

“It’s really been a wonderful project. We’ve long been proud of our internship and mentoring programs in the Department of Interior Design because of the exposure they give our students to the broader world. This takes that idea and applies it in a whole new way.”

Ritchie said that the LSU students also collected items reflective of Louisiana culture and created a care package to send to the Hunan University contingent.

“We wanted to send them pieces of our culture so they could have a better understanding of our way of life here,” Ritchie said. “It’s our gift to them.”

For more information on the LSU Department of Interior Design, visit www.design.lsu.edu/interiordesign.htm.

Aaron Looney | Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
February 2009