After leaving my internship at Brearley Architects & Urbanists (BAU) last week for the last time, I realized how little had actually sunk into my head. It wasn't until the next day that I realized that suddenly I had all this free time to write my final papers and study for class. Yet there must have been a small part of me that did realize it right away, because I clearly remember leaving the building (sleep deprived, mind you) and going through what I thought I had accomplished and what I wished I had done better. There was a lot of the latter I have to say – most likely for the aforementioned reason of lack of sleep – which automatically puts anyone in a dark mood.
In all seriousness though, looking back at my internship I think the two were there in equal measure.
I learned to research topics efficiently – and how to find terribly obscure ones as well. As a side point I also learned how absolutely frustrating it is to be looking for a case study relevant to project design from within China. Not only does the Internet connection in our office constantly jump on and off, but there is no VPN access on the office computers – so any research being done through Google is automatically more difficult. Of course, a large part of our research began there, because the majority of the time we were searching for half-formed ideas that required more definition before we entered the more specific architecture and urban planning sites. If nothing else, my levels of patience have certainly increased dramatically by working at BAU.
Despite the frustrations that come with the Chinese Internet, I realize now that I had an amazing front row seat for four months from which to observe China’s urban development and to learn what really goes in (and what doesn't) to designing cities and urban areas. On one hand, projects go at top speed. I came in to a project and three weeks later the designs were done and sent to the client. The pace of work never slowed down while I was there, although admittedly there were times when staring at more research data it felt as though it was dragging on forever. One of my coworkers worked on 12 projects in the span of 12 months – sheer insanity, it would seem, when you think about the time that needs to be put in to designing a city. The research alone is enormous and there is never enough of it, especially because very often the client simply does not have the proper surveys done, or the team does not have the time to properly survey the site themselves. Then there is the design phase, which is difficult enough to coordinate, but when the client goes ahead and builds a golf course in a certain location and tells you after the fact (while you’re still designing the area), things get a little crazy.
At the same time, there are certainly things that I did not do. I did not ask all the questions that I should have asked my coworkers about living in China and working in an architectural firm. In fact, I did not interact with many of my coworkers nearly enough. Part of this is the language barrier – the office is half Chinese and half foreigners. The divide is obvious when lunch break occurs and the Chinese group goes one way in groups to restaurants or to eat their own lunches while the foreigners clump together to go find food. It saddens me, actually,because it is as if neither side is taking advantage of the situation they find themselves in and all assume that the language barrier is simply too strong.
Even the Urban Design team, which had a fairly even split of foreigners and Chinese, was not a cohesive group during lunch. They would discuss projects easily enough, even sometimes go to a team dinner, but lunch? It was almost as though there was this agreed-upon divide. I don’t believe that it is a divide that I could have changed, but thinking about it has made me realize how little I interacted on many days with either group of coworkers. As time went on, it certainly thawed, but I had to push myself out of my comfort zone to a greater extent than I had originally expected. And, although it was a valuable experience, I do regret that it took so long for me to feel comfortable doing so.
Still, the experience was a valuable one in terms of what I learned about myself, the firm, and the projects across China, and in terms of meeting people who worked in a profession that I have long been interested in.