SOM China Prize Recipient Reflects on the Meaning of Travel

Each year, the SOM Foundation grants awards to students of architecture, urban design, and structural engineering to instill recipients with a heightened sense of responsibility as future design leaders. The SOM Foundation China Prize, which awards a $5,000 fellowship to three recipients, allows students based in China to expand their educational experiences through travel. In this way, these students may deepen their understanding of how their work can improve the built and natural environments.

Li Dai, a 2016 China Prize recipient, undertook a month-long trip to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India. There, she explored the relationship between public space, religion, and people. We recently caught up with Li, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. She reflected on how her travel experience enhanced her awareness of the mission and responsibility designers have in shaping the future.

We encourage all students in their last two years of an architecture or urban design degree program in China to apply for the 2018 China Prize. Applications must be submitted by Thursday, April 13th, at midnight (Beijing time).

How have your observations of various sites and people in the countries you visited—Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India—informed your perspective on design?

Li Dai: All design—whether architectural, landscape, urban—ultimately depends on its users. People respond to a space by initiating all kinds of activities within it. Only when designers know how to make the best use of a space, and fulfill the needs of those users, will we be able to create better urban environments. We can achieve this through both effective observation and participation in those spaces.

In terms of your goals and pursuits as a young designer, what role do you think travel will play?

Li: I can't help but think of a Chinese proverb which, although clichéd, still rings true: "It's better to travel 10,000 miles than read 10,000 books.” I think I must continue visiting more places before I am able to create lasting, meaningful designs. As I traveled throughout South Asia, I encountered all kinds of extreme differences, including environmental and climatic conditions, as well as social disparities in wealth and living conditions. All of these experiences have encouraged me to engage more deeply as a designer in these areas.

In terms of balancing between research and travel, what advice would you give to potential future China Prize applicants?

Li: Remember that travel often involves uncertainties. Take those uncertainties as opportunities for more experiences, reflection, and growth. For example, I got stuck in Dhaka in late July, during the flood season. I tried to go out on a rainy day, but was hampered by the flooding before I even walked a block. The water carried a lot of trash and it was almost as high as my knees; I would have risked falling into an uncovered drainage shaft. Instead, I sat in the hotel restaurant and sketched out this unforgettable scene. Many design ideas came to mind, including a renovation project in Copenhagen I'd previously participated in—a project that dealt with a data-driven storm water management system. I hope that I will have opportunities in the future to get more involved in these types of projects.

To me, research and travel are not contradictory. My travel experience in South Asia provided a reference point for my research on public spaces in the region. But this does not mean that research will happen naturally as you travel. I would recommend that applicants plan well ahead of time, and do some cultural readings or watch some videos. That way, when they finally arrive, it will be like their second visit—allowing them to understand the place on a deeper level.

About the SOM Foundation

The SOM Foundation grants a variety of awards to students of architecture, design, urban design, and structural engineering. The Foundation’s goal is to instill in its fellows a heightened sense of responsibility as future design leaders. First awarded in 1981, the SOM Foundation fellowships are now an important measure of achievement among architecture and engineering students and their colleges and universities. The awards given are: the SOM Prize for Architecture, Design, and Urban Design; the SOM Travel Fellowship for Architecture, Design, and Urban Design; the Structural Engineering Travel Fellowship; the UK Award; and the China Prize.​

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