The Gibbs College of Architecture recently welcomed visiting lecturer Dr. Pai Liu to its Division of Landscape Architecture. Previous to her appointment at OU, Dr. Liu obtained her PhD in Planning, Design, and the Built Environment from Clemson University, and practiced landscape architecture in Greenville, South Carolina. Dr. Liu is teaching graduate-level environmental design studios and landscape architecture history and theory during her time at OU.

GCA communications intern Bri (B) sat down with Pai (PL) to find out more about what drew her to OU and landscape architecture, her research on healthcare environments and aging, and why she’s proud to be a teacher. Read on for highlights from their conversation.

B: What brings you to OU?

PL: The first reason I came to OU is because of your college. Though Gibbs is a college of architecture, it includes a lot of divisions, making it a very collaborative environment. That’s attractive to me. The second reason I came to OU is because of the city of Norman. I went to a conference a few years ago in Oklahoma City, and my friend and I went to the Oklahoma City Memorial and an awesome brunch restaurant that we really liked. After that visit, I liked Oklahoma City and the state in general, so when I got this offer, I was really excited. Plus, after I arrived, all the people were very nice and supportive. My colleagues and students know I’m new here, so they try to help me as much as they can, and that makes me think coming here is the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.

B: Going back to the Oklahoma City Memorial, what did you think of it?

PL: It was fantastic. The first time I went was with my friend, who also graduated from Clemson and is a landscape architect. When we went, we were really impressed by the memorial and how it was designed. I liked the color, the reflecting pool, and the field of empty chairs. Those elements made me feel so sad while I was visiting, and I knew that’s how the designer wanted the visitors to feel. Plus, afterwards, I found out it was designed by the college’s dean, Hans Butzer, so that made OU even more attractive to me.

B: What do you think of the OU campus?

PL: It’s very beautiful and well-designed overall, but I’ve also heard there are a few problems, like flooding. This semester, a student of mine is working on a landscape design competition, and for it, we’re probably going to try to use our knowledge to solve those flooding issues. Hopefully we can help a little bit.

B: Why did you decide to pursue landscape architecture?

PL: I decided to study landscape architecture because of the environmental issues in my home country, China. When I was in high school, China already had a lot of environmental problems, so when I was choosing my major, I wanted to pick something that could contribute to solving that problem. Also, I’m not really a mathematics person, so I felt like I shouldn’t choose something like biology because disciplines like that require a lot of statistics, numbers, and calculations. Because of this, I thought that landscape architecture sounded good. It’s a mix of art and science. With the art part, we need to do hand drawings and have a sense of the aesthetic, and with the science part, we need to know construction knowledge, drainage, and that kind of stuff. So, I thought it was a good choice.

When I was in high school, China already had a lot of environmental problems, so when I was choosing my major, I wanted to pick something that could contribute to solving that problem.

Pai Liu

B: How important is it to be environmentally conscious and keep sustainability in mind in this field of work?

PL: Sustainability is very important, but it also depends on how you define sustainability. To a lot of people, sustainability means ecological design or green infrastructure and buildings, but to me, sustainability is more about designing for multiple generations. When we design, we’re thinking, “Okay we need to make sure this is energy-saving or even a zero energy building,” but the most important thing, in my opinion, is to make sure it’s going to serve not only our generation, but continue to serve people for hundreds of years.

We talked about Central Park in class yesterday, which was completed in 1876, and still, 150 years later, is at the center of New York City. So, I think that is a really sustainable design, because not only has it served the 20th century, but it’s going to continue serving people for another 150 years. Sustainability is important, but it really depends on how you think of it.

To a lot of people, sustainability means ecological design or green infrastructure and buildings, but to me, sustainability is more about designing for multiple generations.

Pai Liu

B: What role do landscape architects play specifically in sustainability and the environment?

PL: That really depends on different disciplines. I remember there was a big debate among the students while I was in undergraduate school, because at that moment, landscape architecture was the largest department. At the time, we were thinking that since we were the largest department, we should be the leaders of the built environment, but the urban planners and architecture students also thought they should be in charge. However, I think architects, landscape architects, and planners should all work as a team. Each of us has different knowledge and expertise of the built environment, so if we can work together and contribute our knowledge, I think we can make a lot of amazing projects, rather than arguing over who the leader is. We’re all leaders, but we’re all also partners.

B: A lot of your research revolves around the design of healthcare environments, specifically design for aging. What inspired you to go into this?

PL: The reason I started researching healthcare with an emphasis on aging is because of my grandma. I grew up with my grandma, and as she got old, she had really bad health problems. She had a stroke, and afterwards, my father and his siblings took care of her for almost 12 years at home. This was a really hard time for my whole family- my grandma, my father, his siblings, everybody. And my grandma, because of our culture, didn’t want to go to a care facility. That made me think, “Is there a way I can properly design a care facility that would make my grandma feel like she’s at home?” So, when I decided to pursue my PhD degree, I decided to do something about healthcare and aging. Also, because of this experience, the population I focus on is elderly Chinese immigrants in the United States. Unfortunately, my grandma passed away last year, but I hope that I can continue my work to design care facilities for other seniors.

The reason I started researching healthcare with an emphasis on aging is because of my grandma.

Pai Liu

Image: Dr. Liu and her grandmother.

B: What are you hoping to achieve from this research?

PL: In the next few years I would like to propose some principles of design and research to make people aware that care environments are culturally sensitive. Different ethnic groups have different cultural needs, and these cultural needs should be addressed when we design new care environments. My long-term goal is to try to change the care environment for different ethnic groups, both in this country and in other places. Sometimes people have to move to other countries, and when this happens to the elderly, I hope that all of them can have a place that feels like home as they age. Even though it might be in an institutional care environment, I still want them to feel like they’re at home. But that’s a very long-term goal.

Different ethnic groups have different cultural needs, and these cultural needs should be addressed when we design new care environments.

Pai Liu

B: What is the current problem that makes this type of research a need?

PL: In the United States specifically, care environments are mainly designed for majorities; they’re designed for the Americans who are from here. But, for the immigrants who aren’t from here, there are a lot of issues. The first is language. There are a lot of immigrants from non-English speaking countries who have very limited knowledge of the English language, and because of this, they cannot go see a doctor. The doctors don’t know their language.

Also, because of the language barrier, they have very limited access to a lot of resources. There’s a picture I showed in my dissertation defense of an old Asian woman, who was trying to talk with the police because they thought she had stolen someone’s purse, though she never did that. However, she could not explain and speak for herself, so they arrested her. It’s a really sad story and although it has finally been resolved, the process has been a really hard time for her. Not only her, but all the elderly immigrants here. So, it’s a big problem that needs to be explored.

Image: Dr. Liu teaching Taichi to seniors at Clemson, where she served as a Taichi Tutor.

B: What work are you most proud of and why?

PL: When it comes to research or teaching?

B: Either one, or both.

PL: Alright, well I love teaching a lot, so I can share something about that. Last year, when I was at Clemson, I taught a class called portfolio design, which teaches students how to make an architecture portfolio. During that class, I tried to follow-through on my teaching philosophy of always caring for my students. On our last day, which was final presentation day, I had a very hardworking student who didn’t show up. I was very surprised. So, I asked her classmates to call her and see what happened.

She came at almost the end of our review, but I could tell she was very upset. I asked what happened, and she suddenly cried out and told me she’d had a really tough morning, and that’s why she didn’t make it to her review. I tried to comfort her and say, “Don’t worry. I will never assess you only based on your final review. I will assess you based on the whole semester, and you did a really good job.” I was glad because she calmed down a little bit afterwards, and before she left, she said, “Pai, I know you’re not a professor; you’re just a PhD student. But to me, you’re a professor. I believe that someday you’ll be a real professor.” In that moment, I felt so proud of my job. That was the highlight of my teaching career.

B: What’s your favorite part about teaching in general?

PL: I like to talk to my students and know what they want to know, because I always have a mindset that I’m someone who should help them achieve their goals. Whenever they have even the slightest of progress, like learning how to use a tool in Photoshop, I feel very happy. That might be the reason I chose to become a teacher.

We are landscape architects. We should design for the world.

Pai Liu

B: What is your biggest piece of advice for students pursuing a career in landscape architecture?

PL: That’s a hard question. While I was in undergraduate school, the last design studio class was taught by the dean of the school of landscape architecture. He said, “I know in the future you’re going to feel that you have to take care of your kids, pay your insurance, buy a house, and everything, and it’s going to be a lot of pressure, but I hope all of you keep in mind that you’re a landscape architect. You have the responsibility as a landscape architect to not only design for the clients and money, but to design for human beings and the environment.” I know that’s easier said than done, especially if you need to pay a lot of bills every month, but still, I would say the same thing to my students. We are landscape architects. We should design for the world.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.