One of the highlights of the landmark Weitzman School of Design exhibition Building in China: A Century of Dialogues on Modern Architecture, now on view at the Penn Wharton China Center [through January 15, 2024], is a 15-foot-long panel featuring 23 students in Penn’s architecture program between 1918 and 1941. A series of black and white portraits accompanied by their degrees and years of study documents the first generation of Chinese students at Penn, who would go on to shape a new movement of architecture and urban design practice and education in their homeland. In the middle of the panel is Lin Huiyin, the only woman among the students. She was also the only one in the group not awarded an architecture degree upon completion of her coursework.
Until now. At the May 18, 2024, Weitzman Commencement Ceremony, the School will award Lin, arguably the first and most famous female architect in modern China, with a long overdue posthumous Bachelor of Architecture degree.
Like her peers, among them Liang Sicheng, the gifted Chinese student who would become her husband and longtime collaborator, Lin came to Penn in 1924 to study under Paul Philippe Cret, the renowned professor of design who led the school’s Beaux Arts-based architecture program. Building in China, co-curated by Lin Zhongjie, an associate professor of city and regional planning at Weitzman, along with Chinese architect Tong Ming, a professor at Southeast University and principal at Studio TM, and Chinese architecture scholar Li Xiangning, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning and professor at Tongji University, celebrates the legacy and impact of the Chinese-born architecture students enrolled at Penn in the first half of the twentieth century. Collectively, these students went on to open the practices and schools of architecture that shaped the nation’s rapidly developing cities and towns for decades—earning the moniker “the first generation of modern Chinese architects.” As originally presented in Philadelphia in 2022, the exhibition examined not just the intercultural dialogues on modern architecture between China and the US over the past hundred years but also how these developments influenced a new generation of progressive contemporary firms practicing in China today.
Building in China follows two decades of research by Weitzman faculty members and curators exploring the exchanges of modern architecture and urban culture between China and the West, with a focus on the relationship between China’s modern architecture and Penn.
One revelation of that research was that Lin, who enrolled in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program, also completed most of the coursework required for Bachelor of Architecture degree—the exceptions include a drawing course that was not open to female students because the live models included men. Because the architecture program did not admit female students until 1934, the fine arts degree was the only option available to her. However, she participated in architecture studios and took courses in design theory, drawing and architectural history and was a teaching assistant in architectural design, often outperforming her male peers. (Lin’s academic record contains numerous grades of “D” for distinction.)
Although the School of Fine Arts, as Weitzman was known for most of the 20th century, began awarding “in faculty” degrees to women who studied architecture prior to 1934 just a few years later—including Georgiana Pope Yeatman, Philadelphia’s first female Director of the Department of City Architecture—Lin remained overlooked despite completing more required architecture coursework than her other female contemporaries.
“From the records, it was clear she wanted to be an architecture student and architect, and she was a very successful one at that. We looked into it more and more it was clear the reason she wasn’t given a degree was because she was a woman,” says Weitzman Dean and Paley Professor Fritz Steiner, who initiated a formal review in 2022. “It’s not right and this is an opportunity to correct that.”
In the decades following their return to China, Lin and Liang worked together to transform architectural history, education, and practice across the country, altering the course of twentieth-century design there. “When you come to America, everyone knows of Frank Lloyd Wright. When you go to China, everyone knows of Lin and Liang,” says Genie Birch, Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research & Education and chair of the graduate group in the Department of City & Regional Planning at Weitzman.
Throughout their work, Lin and Liang married a deep reverence for millennia of Chinese architectural and cultural traditions with international modernist movements. Their efforts to document and catalogue as-yet undeveloped field of Chinese architectural heritage dating back to antiquity facilitated the first systematic history of Chinese architecture. “If it weren’t for them, we would have no record of so many ancient Chinese styles,” the architect and artist Maya Lin—Lin Huiyin’s niece—told The New York Times.
By establishing the departments of architecture at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China and Tsinghua University in Beijing, Lin and Liang influenced generations of practitioners as well as scholars. At both institutions, they were able to translate a design sensibility that shaped progressive, modernist movements like the Bauhaus into a new way of teaching in Asia that centered ateliers and design competitions. As Lin is quoted as telling The Philadelphia Public Ledger in a 1925 article, “We must learn the fundamental principles of all art only in order to apply them to designs distinctly ours.”
As inseparable as Lin and Liang’s names have become, those who knew her point out that she faced numerous hurdles that he did not, and she possessed numerous talents unique to her. It is not widely known, for example, that Lin’s father passed away as she was preparing to enter her final year of studies at Penn, raising the possibility she would have to return to China. And once she and Liang settled in Beijing and started a family, tradition dictated that she focus her energy on raising her children and managing the household, limiting her ability to write or travel for research.
Yet, even in the face of collective struggle, she did not relent. As Lin and Liang’s daughter, Liang Zaibing, has said, “My mother proved through her life that she was a great architect. Even during the toughest years of war, I heard my mother, who was critically ill in bed at the time, saying to my father Liang Sicheng over and over again ‘Don't give up on our research!’”
In addition to her prodigious gifts for architecture, Lin has also been recognized as a cultural icon for her work as a poet and artist. And that broad-based creative orientation permeated her design ethos and affinity for architectural design. Of Lin’s continued relevance, William Whitaker, the curator of the Architectural Archives at Penn, says, “Lin was fearless in pursuing her artistic passions, and how she engaged with the world deserves great respect.”
Nearly a century since Lin arrived at Penn, her descendants continue to follow developments with her alma mater. Upon learning of the posthumous degree, family members have expressed a combination of pride, gratitude, and delight.
“Lin has been a role model for our family, and, as her descendants, we admire and appreciate her fearlessness in pursuing her artistic passion and dreams,” said Yu Kui, Lin’s granddaughter. “We are encouraged and proud that she will receive such honors and recognition from her alma mater after a hundred years.”
[Editor’s note: Consistent with Chinese tradition, family names precede given names for Chinese-born individuals.]