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Sep 20, 2023

Yuan Zhang

Yuan Zhang headshot 2023 CROPPED

Image courtesy of Yuan Zhang

Urban Designer at CBT Architects

Professional or personal website:


Master of Landscape Architecture, Rhode Island School of Design; Bachelor of Science in Astrophysics, Peking University

Professional interests:

Urban design, creative storytelling, visual storytelling

BSA Involvement:

Co-chair, Global Practice Network

When did you first become interested in design as a possible career?

I’ve always been deeply intrigued by the way the world appears and functions, from the physical universe to landscapes, cities, and the lives of people. This fascination drove me to pursue a degree in astrophysics, as it felt like the most profound and awe-inspiring subject.

During a junior-year undergrad exchange program, I had the chance to meet a friend of one of my professors, a successful businesswoman behind a prestigious hospitality and lifestyle brand. She shared captivating stories of her journeys to remote regions, discovering and preserving precious cultural heritage. I was spellbound by her experiences and developed a passion for translating my own experiences and cultural concepts into something both fleeting and tangible (i.e., designing with light and shadow, climatic elements such as wind, sensory elements such as smell, and factors such as seasonality and materiality). These designs craft rich experiences that change over time and with varying weather conditions, evoking a diverse range of emotions. Meeting her and subsequently translating my own experiences and ideas were the catalyst for my deciding to go to art school and study design.

If you could give the you of 10 years ago advice, what would it be?

Trust in all your intuitive thoughts; they deserve to be shared and have significant merit. Moreover, realize that you are a hundred times more capable than you think you are.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?

I want to make the world a better place and serve as an inspirational individual who lives life to her fullest potential.

Hengqin hospital payette

Hengqin Hospital - Landscape Design by Yuan Zhang

Photo Courtesy of Payette

If you could collaborate with anyone in the profession, who would it be and why?

I would be enthusiastic about collaborating with individuals from various fields outside the profession. As industries mature, barriers tend to form, and people often work in isolation. My passion lies in making messages understandable and accessible to a wide audience. Ideally, I would love to work alongside individuals from diverse and exciting professions, ranging from rocket scientists and fashion designers to spiritual teachers and chefs. The goal would be to bring fresh perspectives and creativity into our collaborative efforts.

What does equity mean to you?

To me, equity is about genuine curiosity when interacting with people from diverse backgrounds. It’s less about complex campaigns to solve systemic problems but rather a simple, open-minded approach to understanding individuals, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, culture, or job title.

However, simple does not mean easy; it takes courage and patience that one must continually refine.

Hengqin hospital payette 2

Hengqin Hospital - Landscape Design by Yuan Zhang

Photo Courtesy of Payette

What are some changes that you have implemented in your firm (or for yourself) to address issues of equity in your profession?

I’ve initiated an “Ask Me Anything” initiative with our internal urban design team. It started in a virtual format and has since evolved, including unique sessions such as guest-hosted breakfasts focused on childhood experiences. We are also exploring the possibility of extending this initiative firmwide to enhance communication and foster greater understanding among all colleagues.

Ultimately, although work processes can be optimized for efficiency, building and nurturing relationships cannot and should not be rushed; it requires effort to cultivate a strong, continually evolving team.

What do you see as the largest barrier to a zero-waste building, city, and world?

The main obstacle to achieving zero waste is the continued availability and affordability of unsustainable options. As long as these choices remain cheap and convenient, sustainability is often seen as a luxury. To overcome this, we need to make sustainable alternatives more affordable and accessible to a wider audience through policies, innovations, and awareness efforts.

Balghaiylam Emirati Housing cbt

The Balghaiylam – Emirati Housing Project

Image Courtesy of CBT Architects

How has design improved your daily life?

Design permeates every aspect of our daily lives, from the ergonomic curve of the cup handle I’m holding to the responsive keys on the keyboard I’m typing on. It’s in the seamless dispensing of tissues from the box and the comfortable support of the chair I’m sitting in. It’s fascinating to realize that our daily experiences are shaped by countless decisions made by fellow humans. We’re interconnected in ways we may not always notice, aren’t we?

Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration in travel. It provides a fresh perspective on familiar concepts, sparking new ideas and insights. In today’s world, where text, images, and videos naturally offer highly curated and filtered information, being physically present—fully immersing oneself in a place and engaging all the senses, perhaps even more senses than humans are aware of—is where true inspiration emerges.