In Conversation with Clifford Pearson, New Director of the American Academy in China

School News

In Conversation with Clifford Pearson, New Director of the American Academy in China

November 05, 2015

Clifford Pearson has been at the center of the architecture universe as a writer and editor since joining Architectural Record in 1989. He was one of the first American journalists to cover the transformations happening in China related to urbanization, architecture, and design, and examine the broader implications of those transformations. In 1993, he started the magazine’s annual Pacific Rim section and from 2005 to 2013, he served as the editor-in-charge of Architectural Record China. Pearson brings an unparalleled depth of regional knowledge and on-the-ground experience to his new role as director of USC’s American Academy in China. He also brings extensive leadership experience, having organized numerous symposia, served on advisory committees, and worked as co-director of Asia Design Forum, a nonprofit think tank that provokes debate about the built environment. Pearson will also join the faculty and will be teaching a studio and course related to architectural journalism and media. He will continue with Architectural Record as a contributing editor with a focus on China-related stories.


We spoke with Pearson about his new position, how he wants to put AAC on the map, and about beginning a new life in Los Angeles with a new mission.


What are you most looking forward to about your new position as Director of AAC?

It’s a great opportunity to take a program that is strong and make it stronger. You pointed out that not many people within USC really know much about AAC. It has one foot in the School of Architecture and one outside it. It straddles this in-between area. One of the first things I’d like to do is raise the profile of AAC within the USC community and certainly within the School of Architecture. Right now it’s a summer program that collaborates with other schools in the US, Europe, and Asia. It gives students the opportunity to go to China and rub elbows with their counterparts as well as architects. It should have a stronger presence in LA too. I would like to see talks, lectures, symposia in LA sponsored by AAC. Even if you don’t plan on going to China, you might want to attend a talk or lecture on what’s happening there. This is how people get interested and maybe get more involved. The second step is to raise AAC’s profile among other architecture schools around the world. This way we get other schools to participate in AAC. This makes a richer experience for everyone involved. The third thing is to raise the  profile among professionals and get the architects doing work in China more engaged. Architecture is sort of unusual in that the academy and practitioners are often the same people. There is a close relationship between the two and AAC should capitalize on this.


For those who may not know, what is the goal of AAC?

AAC is about bringing awareness to what’s going on in China and other parts of Asia as well. Now that its economy is slowing down it’s an interesting time in China. For the past 25 years, the country has been building at a scale and speed that is unprecedented in history. Now that it is slowing down, we can look back and assess it. AAC is positioned to see what happened, what worked, what didn’t. AAC is perfectly positioned to look at what’s happening and be this unbiased observer as China catches its breath. I’d also love to see AAC sponsor more research. Currently the program functions mostly in the summer, in a 6 week period. But I’d like to have it operating year-round and have research going on all the time. AAC is also in a great position to reach out to the academic world and the profession in Asia. I also see it acting as an advocate for good design and good planning in China, a resource for municipal governments and planners. Eventually AAC could sponsor design competitions  to address particular areas or issues. The idea is also to bring developers, city agencies, architects, and architecture students together. If we are there all year, we can leverage our presence to get the issues off the page and into the built world. We are already engaging developers. Students this past summer did initial research for a real project that a Chinese developer is considering around Lushan in Jiangxi Province.


It would also be great to get different people involved in AAC. I’d like to see artists, designers, and people from different disciplines involved. It should be like the real world, a collaborative art. I’d love to make AAC a collaborative place, a platform where different types of people can come together to argue, study, research and engage the real world.


What is the importance of China in relation to USC and the broader western architectural community?

USC is a global academic institution, so engaging China is important. At the end of October, I went to Shanghai with Dean Ma to participate in the university’s Global Conference 2015. USC long ago identified China as a place with huge opportunities for academic institutions. Over the past 25 years, American architects have been extremely successful in exporting their services to China. During the same period, the Chinese design community has also emerged and gotten to the point where it can compete with foreign firms. Increasingly, the exchange between East and West is a two-way street.


There is a long history of the West studying and writing about China. Why is it important to do this in an architectural or design context?

Architecture is a collaborative effort, so it’s essential that Western firms understand and work with their Chinese counterparts. There’s a complex back-and-forth today with ideas and capital flowing in many directions. Chinese students come to the US, get an education, then go back home. Some of them, like Dean Ma, then come back to the US to work or teach. Some Chinese developers are also active in the US now, adapting strategies they learned in Asia to the American context. It’s a rich exchange between East and West. It’s really important to have an ongoing conversation about the things that work and those that don’t work. This isn’t hypothetical, since China continues to build. And the more it builds, the better it gets at it. I remember walking around Shanghai’s main commercial street, Nanjing Road, back in 1994. It was mostly bicycles back then. Now the street and the urban fabric are completely different. Not only has the scale and scope of construction soared, but the quality of the architecture has improved too. There are some very sophisticated buildings now--state of the art stuff. In some ways, architecture there is one or two steps ahead of ours. Clients in the US tend to be risk averse, but in China they want to be on the cutting edge. They’re confident and have the sense that things are getting better. It will be interesting to see how the economic slowdown in China affects clients, the design community, and the public at large. I think it’s an open question. My guess is that things will pick up again in a year or two and the country won’t lose its swagger. While some speculative projects have stopped, I’m finding that the design-focused firms are staying busy.


You have a long history of writing about and engaging with contemporary architecture in China. How did you become interested in this and when did you first start going to China?

I first went over to Asia in 1993 for a big conference in Singapore. I remember hearing Rem Koolhaas give a talk there. It was clear to me that a lot would be happening in Asia. That same year, I convinced the editor of Architectural Record to do a Pacific Rim section once a year. It ran until 1997 when an economic crisis hit Asia. Eight years later, we started the Chinese edition of the magazine. This was the first time Record ever had a foreign language edition. It gave me an interesting perspective—working with our Chinese partners and getting the chance to meet a lot of Chinese architects. It was exciting to be where the action was. As a journalist, that’s what you want.


In addition to running AAC you will be teaching a course on architectural writing. Any thoughts on what this will look like?

I’m writing the syllabus right now, in fact! The course will be an intro to architectural journalism, teaching students how to write and communicate using images, text, and digital content. It’s important for architects to know how to express their ideas to clients and the public at large. When architects can’t explain what they do, they find it hard to make allies and get things done. Drawings and other images are powerful tools, but architects need words too to get their messages across. The class is also an opportunity for students to work on the AAC website, to develop it as a real resource for USC  and the public at large. I hope to make the site a more engaging and lively place where people can  learn what’s happening in AAC and in Asia. I’ll bring the perspective of an editor to get the larger picture and help people understand what is most important.


What does it take to be a good architectural writer?

Having a sense of curiosity is the most important thing. You need to go beyond the surface, do some digging, find out what’s behind the design. A good architectural writer explains why a project happened in the way it did and then is able to assess how successful it is. You need to be able to defend your position and build a case. I’m hoping to engage other journalists and critics in the class. Writing forces you to really think about architecture and understand what’s behind it. Taking a class is a way to explore and understand what is getting designed and built…and why. It’s like when you draw a building, you understand it in a different way.


Recently at the Monterey Design Conference, more than one architect mentioned writing as an important part of their process of discovering a design.

Maya Lin says she starts each project by writing about it. This allows her to explore the ideas behind it and examine its possibilities. As soon as she starts drawing, she starts defining and limiting it.


How did you become a writer in this field and who did you look up to when you were starting out?

When I was in high school I would read Ada Louise Huxtable in The New York Times every Sunday. This is what got me hooked. She was a beautiful writer. She cared about more than just buildings. She cared about cities, and the places where we live, work, and play. She had an expansive view of architecture and its potential. There was real passion in her writing and it was totally infectious. At one point I thought I might be an architect. I took a studio when I was at Cornell, as well as courses in architectural history and planning. But I didn’t have the patience to be an architect; to stick with a project for 4 or 5 years was beyond my attention span. But with journalism, I could write a story and see the results a few weeks later. My first job was writing for small trade newspaper. Then I went to Columbia and did graduate work in architectural history. I’ve always been just outside the profession. Always one step removed from the subject I deal with. This gives me a different perspective—a broader, but perhaps less deep view—on what’s going on in the field. I talk with architects, clients, and users and I visit a lot of buildings. I hope I can provide students with an alternative way of looking at architecture, one that complements what they get from studio and other courses.


To learn more about Clifford Pearson see this earlier post on his appointment.