While flying from Denver to Shanghai an airline steward asked Milen Milev how long he planned to stay in the chaotic commercial capital of China.

“A year,” Milev said.

“A year?” scoffed the steward. “You’ll never make it a year.”

That was nine months ago and the University of Colorado Denver  student isn’t just making it, he’s thriving in bustling Shanghai as an intern at Gensler, the largest design firm in the world.

“People told me I wouldn’t last because of the size of the city and how different it was,” said Milev, sitting in his office overlooking the soaring Shanghai skyline. “Even though it’s fast-paced, it seems less stressful than other big cities.”

Milen Milev, College of Architecture and Planning student who is an intern at Gensler in Shanghai
CU Denver student, Milen Milev, in Shanghai, China

Milev is part of an increasingly ambitious collaboration between the CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning  (CAP) and universities and businesses throughout China.

CAP now has an exchange program with Southeast University in Nanjing, a dual-degree program with Tongjing University in Shanghai and the internship program with Gensler.

“The world of architecture and design has become global and many of our students will likely work abroad at some point in their career,” said CAP Dean Mark Gelernter. “More and more firms are now looking for students with international experience.”

And China is the place to get a lot of it, fast.

“China is building at a speed that is beyond the comprehension of most Americans,” Gelernter said. “Our students going to China get a level of experience they don’t get here. In the future, they will have to design for other cultures. And they will need to understand that culture and its values. That can’t be done in two or three weeks. They need to be immersed in the other culture.”

Milev has been thoroughly immersed.

“Right now I am working on the Nanjing World Trade Center with two residential towers and hotels standing about a thousand feet high,” he said in an interview last November. “I have three other major building projects as well. I would never get this level of experience this fast working in the U.S.”

Architecture and design students in classroom at Southeast University.
Architecture and design students in classroom at Southeast University.​

Milev, 30, was scrambling because the Chinese were putting up a building before the plans were done. A typical situation.

“Now we have learned that a column is about to go through the lobby,” he said calmly despite what seemed a looming disaster. “In the States you finish all drawings first before building, but here you go back and forth.”

Rapid development spells opportunity

With a population topping 23 million, Shanghai is arguably the most dynamic city on earth. It epitomizes China’s strange dance between communism and capitalism. Construction is almost frantic. Luxury retailers like Hermes and Gucci line broad boulevards besides Rolls Royce and Masserati dealerships.

CU Denver graduate Jun Xia moves smoothly through this commercial mayhem. After all, it’s his hometown, one studded with buildings he’s created as regional design director of Gensler’s Shanghai office. When he started, the office had just three employees, now there are 150.

“China is like a BMW that is fast and agile,” Xia said. “It may go the wrong way but it can always turn back.”

Xia studied design at CU Denver in the mid-1980s when he was one of only a handful of Chinese students on campus. Like so many others, he was taken in by Yuk Lee, associate dean of CAP. Lee came to the U.S. on a freighter from Hong Kong in 1963 and has been instrumental in forging relationships between CAP and China for years.

“Yuk Lee was my strongest supporter as a Chinese student,” Xia said “He was a pioneer in opening doors to Chinese students and one big reason so many of them now attend CU Denver.”

Xia joined Gensler’s Denver office in 1991 and helped design Denver International Airport before setting up his Shanghai office.

The internship idea was born one night when Xia and Lee were having dinner at a top Shanghai restaurant.

“We were eating and drinking and he just said, `Why not send students to my office as interns?’’’ recalled Lee. “I said, `Okay let’s do it.’ It was that simple.”

Jun Xia shows some model building in his Shanghai office.
Jun Xia shows some model building in his Shanghai office.

Gensler’s Shanghai office is white, bright and airy. Small knots of designers cluster around computers debating plans and ideas. Models of state-of-the-art buildings adorn tables. The biggest stands near the front desk – the Shanghai Tower.

The mere mention of it caused the frenetic, highly-scheduled Xia, 49, to cancel a meeting and head for his SUV. He swiftly maneuvered through traffic, stopping at the base of a massive building tapering gracefully into the sky. Heavy fog made it vanish into the clouds adding to the otherworldly effect.

“I started work on this in 2003,” he said proudly. “It is the second tallest building on earth.”

The 121-floor, 2,000 feet-high, Shanghai Tower will be completed in 2014 and open in 2015.

“The scale of our projects here are huge,” Xia said. “We don’t mess around. When an intern comes they jump right in. You will get very intense experience very quickly.”

This go-go attitude stems in part from Xia’s deep appreciation for the brevity of life. Most people measure their time on earth in years, Xia does so in days. And by his reckoning, he has about 10,000 days left.

“The life span of a human being is very short and you must treasure every day,” he said. “I value what CU Denver gave me and I want to give back. If you are thinking of becoming an intern, consider this a life experience, a gate or a window into another world. A year working here is like 10 years in the U.S.”

A unique dual degree program

Shanghai is also home to Tongji University which signed an agreement with CAP in 2012 for a dual-degree program. Tongji students are already studying at CU Denver while the first batch of CAP students headed to Tongji in January.

“We want to send strong students but also students who will be good ambassadors for CU Denver,” said Ann Komara, an associate professor in CAP’s landscape architecture department. “We want people who are curious, open and not easily deterred when things get difficult.”

Qiu Jiani is one of the two Tongji students at CU. She’s an intern at Gensler in Denver.

“I find the teachers here good but very strict,” she said. “At first it was hard but now I enjoy it. Since coming here I have helped design an airport in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and I am working on a town square program to create gathering places in Denver.”

The Shanghai native was initially struck by how empty Denver felt compared to her crowded hometown.

“I got lost once and there was no one to ask directions from,” she said. “There are so few people in the streets.”

Sun Qian is also from Tongji.

“One thing I enjoy here are the real life scenarios we have to do in class and how they are critiqued by others,” she said. “We don’t do that in China.”

Storied city welcomes U.S. students

Just a few hours from Shanghai by bullet-train, Nanjing rises majestically from the banks of the mighty Yangtze River. The 2,500-year-old city is freighted with history, serving as imperial capital for six dynasties and surrounded by formidable city walls.

In 1937, it gained worldwide notoriety when the Japanese army invaded, raping and murdering more than 300,000 inhabitants.

While those memories remain open wounds for many Chinese, Nanjing these days is a bright, leafy city and home to one of the most educated populations in China.

Southeast University sits on a tree-lined campus near the center of town.  It houses one of China’s best architecture and design schools and the site of a growing cooperation with CAP.

CU Denver students come here to take part in joint design studios where they work on projects like neighborhood revitalization near the old city walls.

Architecture and design students in classroom at Southeast University.
Architecture and design students in classroom at Southeast University.​

“My project is trying to restore part of the Nanjing City Wall,” said Shirley Xu, 25, who is getting a Master’s Degree in urban planning and development at Southeast. “We have four American and six Chinese students involved. It has been a great experience working with the Americans. For them, they get to work on really big, real life projects.”

There have been faculty exchanges as well.

Jeremy Nemeth, chairman of CAP’s Department of Planning and Design, has spent time at Southeast while academics there have visited CU Denver.

CAP’s Yuk Lee played a pivotal role in setting up this cooperation. It began when Southeast University School of Architecture Dean Wang Jianguo visited CU Denver in 1991.

“Yuk Lee picked me up at airport and I stayed at his home. It was my first time in Denver and my first trip abroad,” the dean recalled. “My first impression was that there were not many people in the streets and it was very snowy.”

Wang taught a class in urban design at CU before returning to Nanjing. He and Lee later worked out a student exchange agreement between the two universities.

“This exchange benefits us very well. Chinese students need to be more open minded about the world,” he said. “And for Americans, China is the magic country because it is developing so fast.”

John Hong, a design professor at Southeast, visited CU Denver last year and is hoping the two universities will expand their faculty exchanges.

“We don’t want the joint studios to be a one shot deal. We want them to be serious cooperation in a deep way,” he said. “Urban planning is a very dynamic field in China. American students get a real feel of that dynamism when they work on projects here.”

Liu Bo Min, professor of urban design at Southeast and a visiting scholar at Harvard, said an urban planning education these days is global, not local.

“Working in the U.S. helped me become a better teacher,” he said. “In China higher education is all about lectures. In the U.S. there is a lot more discussion.”

Southeast has a storied past. It was once headed by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Chinese who were later routed by Mao Zedong.

“Southeast University has one of the oldest urban planning departments in China. It is the center of urban planning in China,” said Jianqiang Yang, director of Urban Planning at Southeast. “Urban planning is hugely popular in China right now. When our students graduate they can usually find a job.”

And finding a job is the ultimate goal for most Chinese and American students.

“Many view these exchanges as excellent chances for instructional and cultural enrichment and those are very noble things,” Lee said. “But there is a very practical reason we developed these relationships with China and that is to make our students more marketable. And that’s what we have done.”

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