Exhibitions of Architecture: Yaran’s Research Explores China and La Biennale di Venezia

by | Jun 14, 2024 | Architecture, Planning and Environmental Management, Postgraduate research | 0 comments

Yaran Zhang is a 2nd Year Architecture PhD researcher in the School of Environment, Education and Development. Her research project is titled: Geopolitics on Display: Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale.


Where were you before starting your PhD at Manchester?

Before beginning my academic journey at The University of Manchester, I received my training as an architect in China and the U.S. This is where I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

When did you first know you wanted to study at PhD level?

Courses in architecture schools are inherently design-oriented. When I was pursuing my master’s degree, we were required to take a mandatory course titled “Architecture Theory and Criticism.”

During this course, we were assigned several readings every week and were expected to write a reflection on those readings. The readings were not always directly related to the field of architecture; sometimes, they even included novels. This was the first time I truly dedicated myself to the challenge of synthesizing knowledge from various sources. Consequently, it became quite engaging to ponder questions like, ‘Why is this novel related to architecture?’ and ‘How can I integrate this knowledge into my design studio?’.

This experience ignited my interest in pursuing a PhD. It allowed me to explore the interdisciplinary connections that enrich architectural design and theory and also forged a deeper understanding of my field.

Were you considering any other institutions for your PhD study? 

My decision was primarily influenced by the expertise of my supervisors, Dr. Lea-Catherine Szacka, Dr. Ewan Harrison, and Prof. Albena Yaneva. They are authorities in the fields of architecture exhibition, archival, and ethnographical research.

How are you funding your PhD? 

I am funding my PhD by working as a teaching assistant, which helps to subsidize a portion of my tuition fees. Initially, navigating the various funding opportunities presented some challenges, as it required identifying options aligned with my academic pursuits and financial needs. However, with persistent effort and guidance from my department, I was able to secure this assistance.

Can you provide an overview of your project and research, highlighting the key themes and objectives of your work?

My research focuses on the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, tracing the history of its exhibitions over the past 20 years. By analyzing the selected exhibits within the Chinese Pavilion, my work seeks to explore how China has represented itself on this international stage. This study sheds light on China’s evolving presence at the Venice Architecture Biennale and contributes to a broader understanding of cultural representation and international exchange in the context of global architectural exhibitions.

Low angle of lit columns in red and white either side of a reflective walkway

Chinese Pavillion at Venice Architecture Biennale

How do you communicate your research with the wider public? 

The Manchester Architecture Research Group (MARG) offers an excellent platform for PhD students within the Architecture Department to exchange ideas. The department regularly organizes events to share research findings and receive feedback. In addition, the School of Environment, Education, and Development (SEED) hosts an annual Postgraduate Research conference, allowing me to share my research progress with researchers from other humanities and social science disciplines.

In your opinion, what distinguishes your research from other academic disciplines in the Faculty?

Each person’s research is unique. We come from different parts of the world, possessing varied cultural backgrounds and research interests. This diversity encourages us to approach problems from multiple perspectives and to focus on different research areas. In the Department of Architecture, some researchers review and analyse historical events to reveal their impact on modern society, while others concentrate on technological advancements and explore how they shape our future.

For prospective PhD students, what qualities and skills do you believe are essential for success? 

As an international student, I have found that academic writing often poses a bigger challenge compared to other quantitative or qualitative research skills. Especially when conducting research in a different linguistic context, I sometimes experience a sense of being ‘lost in translation.’

My strategy has been to consistently engage with diverse materials, regardless of the language or category (for instance, I enjoy the stories of Sherlock Holmes). This approach helps me stimulate my brain and continuously maintain an active learning mindset. When it comes to writing, this approach has allowed me to find a natural flow in my work.

Sherlock Holmes books lined up on shelf

Yaran enjoys Sherlock Holmes stories between her research studies

How do you balance your time with research with social and non-university commitments?

My schedule doesn’t adhere to typical working hours. To ensure steady progress in my research while achieving a work-life balance, I participate in various activities that help refresh my mind.

What are the main challenges you have faced during your PhD so far? 

One of the main challenges was dealing with the uncertainty inherent in research. There may be times when the data collected from archives and observations did not initially seem to align with my research questions. However, these challenges have highlighted the importance of flexibility in research design and the ability to adjust my approach based on available data. This experience has made me realize the unpredictability of research and the need for resilience and innovation when faced with challenges.

Student Stands Next to Large Screen with notes and presentation slides

Yaran Presenting Her Research

What have been the main highlights?

My supervisors and the Department of Architecture have provided me with significant support, guiding me on how to navigate and solve problems when I encounter difficulties. This journey has been instrumental in sharpening my problem-solving skills and resilience as a researcher.

What are your aspirations for when you finish your PhD studies?

One of the beauties of the PhD journey is that as you delve deeper into your research, you also gain a deeper understanding of yourself. My exploration of myself is still ongoing, so I would like to leave this question open-ended.

You can read more about research in the Manchester School of Architecture  

Stay up-to-date with all the postgraduate research news and communications by signing-up for alerts.