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Stuckeman students collaborate with German colleagues for design competition

UNIVERITY PARK, Pa. – Fourth-year landscape architecture students who spent the spring semester studying abroad in Bonn, Germany were tasked with a unique group project: Collaborate with students studying at Nürtingen University to the connect the German city of Überlingen with Mainau Island, a well-established botanical garden located across Lake Constance, by designing “water gardens.” The designs would be submitted to the International Student Workshop where a jury of professionals would critique the work and selected five finalists.

Überlingen, a small historic city with a population of 22,000, is the site of the State Horticultural Show 2020 which is expected to draw thousands of visitors to the area. Mainau Island is located in the southern part of Germany and is well known for its parks and gardens.

In anticipation of the horticulture show and its 1,250th anniversary (which is in 2020), the city of Überlingen is developing an inner-city open space system that combines the existing green spaces. A new boat service will bring expo visitors to Mainau Island and back; however, the student teams were asked to think beyond festival transportation and to design water gardens that would create a “more artistic, architectural or poetic connection” between the two cities.

The city of Überlingen and Mainau Island served as the clients for the student competition, said Neil Korostoff, associate professor and education abroad coordinator in the Department of Landscape Architecture. Korostoff accompanied the students for the competition.

“The city of Überlingen provided the housing, meals and working space for all of the students during the competition and we couldn’t have been more grateful,” he said.

Each design team was comprised of three or four students, including one Penn State student, which had to design two corresponding gardens: one in Überlingen and one on Mainau Island. The teams also had to come up with a strategy as to how the gardens would be linked – would they be from the same “family” or contrast in an obvious way? Would they share the same color scape or use the same design elements?

The actual location of their water gardens in the two locations was also part of the challenge, meaning the students had to study the land, its history and features to determine which preselected areas for the gardens they would use as their design sites. The water gardens themselves would be rather small and teams were to design their garden models on a scale of 1:20.

“The connection between the two islands was actually the most challenging part of our project,” said Wenjuan Li, one of the Penn State landscape architecture students. “My group’s concept was to use mirrors so that the reflections would create a surprising landscape. We also wanted to reflect people inside of the landscape in order to stimulate the idea of self contemplation.”

Hawkin Slusarski, another Penn State student who participated in the project, echoed Li’s sentiments about connecting the locations.

“Designing across multiple sites is one challenge; but connecting designs and unifying them across sites is another challenge entirely,” he said. “As a design team, we were certain that we would have to create a space at each location that was different enough to want to be enjoyed individually, but similar enough that the connection was clear from one site to the other.”

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the competition was for the German students, who had to communicate with their teammates and present their designs in English. One Nürtingen student said his English skills improved because of the project while another learned to develop and present their designs in a short period of time. Yet another student said that communication within the teams was successful because “the passion for landscape architecture connects us.”

“The language barrier was a little tough, but I absolutely have to give credit to the Nürtingen students because their English was far better than my German, so communication was still super clear,” said Slusarski. “That's the thing, design is a universal language. When you study concepts that transcend words and letters, you can communicate with anyone that knows that language through sketches, images, diagrams and precedent.”

Li had a unique take on the partnership with German students on the design project.

“As a Chinese student studying abroad in the United States and then ‘studying abroad abroad’ in Germany, I was pretty nervous about cultural collisions, such as language barriers and design habitats, at first,” she said. “But I was surprised because everyone was respectful of each other’s ideas and I now have some new friendships with German students.”

She did mention that it was a challenge for her Penn State classmates to get used to the metric system for measurements, which is used in Germany as well as her native China, but it was struggle with which she could empathize.

“When German students talked about 10 meters, many of my peers had no idea how long it was. I totally understand that feeling because it is exactly how I felt when I first had a design studio course at Penn State (and had to use the imperial unit for measurement),” said Li.

The jury of critics who selected the five finalists included: instructors from Penn State and Nürtingen; Jan Zeitler, the mayor of Überlingen; Bettina Gräfin Bernadotte, the owner of the Mainau Botanical Garden (who, interestingly enough, is also a Swedish countess); and Markus Zeiler, director of the Mainau Botanical Garden.

The five students from Penn State on the final design teams were Natali Duerr, Sarah Harris, Li, Slusarski and Chenlu Zhu. Three of the final teams will see their designs built and displayed during the 2020 celebrations.

“Going in to work with students I had never met or knew anything about could easily have been an awful experience but staying open-minded and keeping the main goal to create a design we were proud of made everything a lot more comfortable,” Slusarksi said about the experience.

He also had some advice for landscape architecture students:

“Know your site, know your clients, know the context, know your team and know yourself, all as best you can, before you crack into any project. It makes the entire process smoother and way more fun,” he said. “My time with those students on that island are my fondest memories from my time abroad and I am going to cherish them for the rest of my life.”

Bruno Röver of the Academy of International Education (AIB), which the Penn State Department of Landscape Architecture partners with for its study abroad program in Bonn, and Rainer Sachse of Nürtingen University were the instructors for the design studio in which the student teams completed their projects.

“They really put this whole enterprise together, coordinated with Uberlingen and Mainau Island and served as the primary instructors,” said Korostoff. “[This project} … would not have been possible without their dedicated engagement.”

The program director for the Bonn program is Ture Petersenn.

The top five design teams in the International Student Workshop in Germany pose with their winning models, their instructors and their clients for the project.
A map showing the German city of Überlingen and its relation to Mainau Island.
Penn State landscape architecture student Wenjuan Li (back left) and her teammates share a laugh in the studio.
Penn State landscape architecture student Hawkin Slusarski (right) and a German teammate assemble their model.