Tracy Wharton, a grad student in architecture, says: “I thought all the buildings in China were pagodas and pavilions. I was surprised to see the architecture includes so many Western-style structures.”

Wharton was one of 20 MIT students who spent five weeks in Beijing last summer participating in MIT’s Beijing Urban Design Studio, an innovative partnership between Tsinghua University in Beijing and MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, where students from both schools work together on issues of urban design and development. The 20-year-old studio, which over the years has been attended by 400 students and faculty, is one of the world’s most enduring academic programs between the U.S. and China.

“The goal is to teach urban design in an international context, and also to have a cultural exchange between students at Tsinghua and MIT,” says Dennis Frenchman, a professor of urban planning, who along with Architecture Prof. Jan Wampler, directs the program. “The idea is for students to gain a better understanding of the culture, and how it affects city form.”

This year, the students focused on Beijing’s huge migrant population. They created an urban design and development plan for the Sun Palace neighborhood in a fast-growing area of Beijing. This older urban village is surrounded by high-rise development, and now the city wants to redevelop this area, too. The question was, where will all these migrants live?

Six teams of students –– including architects, urban planners, and real estate students — developed six alternatives for the future of the neighborhood. Their work was exhibited at Tsinghua University and will also be published in World Architecture, China’s top design magazine. “The Studio engages students with real issues facing the rapid urbanization of China,” Frenchman says. “In the process, students develop new ideas about cities, then they go out into the world and do great things.”

The Studio began this year with a big exhibition near Tiananmen Square, featuring the history of the studio and showcasing 20 years of work on sites in Beijing. “I was speechless,” Frenchman says. “It’s not often you walk into a room and see 20 years of student work across an entire city.”

Wharton says the most valuable part of the program was witnessing the city firsthand. “I was amazed by the glorious landscaping in China,” she says. “I just always designed with buildings and raw materials, but now I think more about beauty and nature and how much of a role it can play in making your living experiences so much more heightened, better, and richer.”