The first time Ma Yansong traveled abroad from China, he went to Yale to earn a Master’s degree. While there, he participated in a Yale-sponsored travel program with the university’s architecture school.
The experience of living in a new country was formative for the architect, who now runs his studio, MAD, out of Beijing. So formative that in 2009, Yansong started his own fellowship to fund travel for Chinese students who wanted to conduct research abroad.
For the last seven years, only students from mainland China could take advantage of MAD’s Travel Fellowship. But this year, the studio expanded the program, offering five international students the opportunity to visit China and learn about the country’s architecture and culture.
China is a place where you can experience two very contrasting things coexisting,” says Yansong. “First, the rich, cultural history of the country—and, second, rapid urbanization.”
For Roberto Vargas Calvo, an architecture student from San José, Costa Rica, who was one of five international students accepted into the program, this duality presented a rare opportunity to use the country as a testing ground for some of his ideas about how technology and automation are impacting the social connection architecture has historically fostered. Calvo split his two weeks between Beijing and Shanghai, where he explored the city’s buildings and talked with Yansong to glean a deeper understanding of how Chinese architecture works within the country’s broader social fabric.
“I think I came back with more questions than answers from this trip,” Calvo says. “Not in a bad way, but in a deep reflective matter.” And that, Yansong says, is exactly the point of travel. “My hope is that through the people they encounter, the feelings and emotions that they go through while they are traveling, the students will begin to figure out what direction they want to go in, what areas they wish to pursue, and most importantly, to find their personal and architectural identity