Leading by Example
What does leading by example look like? We spoke with Shanghai Principal Shuyi Chang about her extraordinary design work and professional advocacy, both of which demonstrate how women are breaking new ground in the field of landscape architecture. Read more below.
Shuyi Chang, a principal with SWA’s Shanghai studio, is one of many visionary women leaders at the firm. As a 100-percent employee-owned company, one of our hallmarks is a focus on mentorship of staff. Women comprise approximately 30 percent of our leadership, with 10 of 30 associate principals and 10 of 27 principals being female.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, we spoke with Shuyi about her design practice and her work as a co-founder of the Shanghai Landscape Forum (SLF), a platform for international practitioners in China. We learned about her background, her ongoing contributions to the field, and her thoughts on women pursuing landscape architecture as a career.
You have been a driving force behind the effort to establish the SLF, a professional organization in China with the potential to become ASLA’s first international chapter.
Five years ago, three firms came together to elevate the profession in China: SWA, Sasaki, and AECOM. The goal was to establish a strong network of international practitioners in the region to advance both design outcomes and underlying theory. With so many people from Asia seeking an education in the U.S. and realizing the high value of international work, the Forum seemed to be a logical next step. We wanted to establish a stronger foundation for working in the region and to offer education and information on a wide variety of topics. We also wanted to forge an official American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) chapter presence. I was the Co-Chairwoman of ASLA International PPN (Professional Practice Network), and we continue to work to establish an ASLA Shanghai Chapter.
Since April 2017, SLF has become a regular event, though the past couple of years have relied on virtual meetings. Our most recent gathering was held on December 4, 2021, in Shanghai’s Jing’an 88 Creative Center. It was great to finally come together in person after so many COVID-related delays.
What has your role with the SLF historically been?
I was one of the three founders, making sure that critical topics were being taken up by the group and that important voices were given a platform. SWA, AECOM, and Sasaki, as the founding firms, remain the primary decision-makers, but several other firms have since joined, including SOM as well as Atkins (from the U.K.), and Aspect and Hassell, both based in Australia. The event’s success has grown so that we now sell tickets to the forums, which both widens and deepens the SLF’s sphere of influence.
How would you characterize your early career?
It’s quite common for aspiring professionals from Asia to seek professional education in the United States, and this was the case for me. My uncle had obtained a PhD in horticulture in the U.S. in 1965, so there was some family history. Oklahoma State offered a very well-rounded landscape architecture program, but beyond that, the U.S. is so diverse culturally – I wanted to go someplace in the middle of the country – someplace I’d never been.
After completing a five-year program at Oklahoma State, I began practicing at SWA, where its outstanding mentorship enabled me to continued my education. I worked in the Dallas studio for 13 years, and had the opportunity to obtain hands-on experience. I learned a tremendous amount from leading landscape architects like David Thompson (formerly the Dallas Managing principal, and now Shanghai’s Managing Principal and Co-CEO of the firm) and Chuck McDaniel (the current Dallas Managing Principal). Even though I was based in the United States, I always remained interested in working on international projects. In 2010 and 2011, SWA’s OCT Bay projects in Shenzhen were really taking off – work that has led to an ongoing partnership with OCT Urban Entertainment Investment Company as a client and with Shenzhen as a client city. As a firm, we’ve been instrumental in shaping Shenzhen’s public realm via projects like Shenzhen Bay, Bao’an Waterfront Park, and most recently, OCT Guangming Trail. We opened a studio in Shanghai in 2011, and around that time I was moving back to Asia. Relocating was a tough decision, but I had the support of my family and SWA’s leadership.
One of your recently completed projects, OCT Guangming Trail, has gotten a lot of attention since it opened, including featured coverage in DOMUS and Metropolis magazines.
Especially in recent years, China has made a major reinvestment in its public realm and in the long-term health of the environment, as evidenced through current “sponge city” principles. As stewards of one of the world’s fastest-growing regions, Chinese clients understand that design is important, and that construction is equally so.
Guangming Trail represents a significant investment and upgrade in the historically agricultural outskirts of Shenzhen. We were originally tasked with expanding and improving a regional jogging and biking trail through a rugged landscape overlooking the city that was historically a lychee farm. Our client was ambitious, and we saw the opportunity to create an iconic destination for locals and tourists that would support healthy living in this increasingly urbanized part of China. It is an unusual project, and what may have garnered the most attention is the introduction of its three bespoke pedestrian bridges, which literally elevate the trail to offer striking views and establish local landmarks. I was involved in siting and conceptualizing all three bridge forms, and then partnered with the project engineer to execute them technically. The Floating Bridge, with its glowing rings powered by integrated solar panels, has attracted international media attention, but the Discovery Bridge has become the go-to destination for visitors to take “selfie” photos. And the Wind Song Bridge is China’s first stress-ribbon pedestrian structure. It drapes across a valley, and sways and “sings” with the wind so that visitors have a visceral (and sonic) experience of height and motion.
I understand that Guangming Trail had an all-female team?
Yes! I didn’t intend for the team to be composed entirely of women, but in truth many of my projects have had strong female presences – that’s not only true of the Shanghai studio, but is common across SWA. There are so many talented and creative women coming up in the industry as a whole.
What have you perceived about gender equity within the profession? How has it evolved during your time as a practicing landscape architect?
This profession requires a very fast pace and long hours; there’s a lot of physical and social stress! But within SWA, all of the women I’ve had the pleasure of working with are tremendously creative and well-educated. Some have settled elsewhere, but many of SWA’s international staff have returned to their “hometowns” in Asia, eager to leverage their skills and their passion for positive changes in the pubic realms we all enjoy. What I can say about all of the women I’ve worked with is that they are incredibly driven – this is not “just a job” to them, they want to accomplish something significant!
Of course, as with many professions, some women in landscape architecture eventually choose a different level of engagement or a blended path in which they have to balance work and family. And some of us struggle with that conflict in ways that men in the profession generally don’t. I’ve been proud to mentor and work alongside all of my colleagues, both men and women. There is a real collaborative spirit within SWA that nurtures designers, and that I think results in better design overall. That has certainly been my experience.
What do you think women may bring to the table within the profession?
I think that in all professions, women are likely subject to different conditions than men. My observation, for good or ill, is that women tend to be brought up in a more sensitive way. There are stereotypes of women being more “naturally” collaborative or nurturing, but that’s largely a product of acculturation. I have found with my female colleagues, and also with many men, that there is a real sense of how our design work affects surrounding conditions and societies. I know that for myself, when I put down the “lines” on paper or attempt to express culturally significant design concepts, I am always thinking about the people who will use – and hopefully enjoy and treasure – the resulting space.