THE SHENYANG ARCHITECTURAL UNIVERSITY campus is an ambitions attempt to do something genuinely novel in campus design in China—to build a bridge across a widening gap in the fabric of Chinese society. China's economic boom of the past 25 years has turned attention from a fundamental feature of the society: agriculture. Entrepreneurs have become heroes, and university students dream of building new companies. Although several hundred million people still live on the land , rural peasants are becoming a shadowy presence in the imagination of the young, neither seen nor admired despite their massive numbers. Any attempt to foster consciousness of the agricultural past and present among students is swimming upstream against the flow of modern media, globalization, styles , and trends.
When Turenscape ,China's first privately owened landscape architecture and planning firm, and Peking University's Graduate School of Landscape Architecture (GSLA) took on the task of designing a campus for the new Shenyang Architectural University, they were acutely aware of this problem. The design team saw the campus as an opportunity to use landscape architecture to try to connect students to parts of Chinese society that they might otherwise shun . The strengths and weaknesses of the resulting project have a good deal to say about the role of landscape architecture in a rapidly changing society.
The project began in 2002, and The work schedule was extremely tight; the main landscape and building components were to be completed in less than a year, before classes began in the fall of 2003. The challenge was compounded by the fact that the design of the campus architecture had already been completed when Turenscape was brought into the process. 320,000 square meters of building area had been constructed, and the bulk of the budget had been used up in the process. Although this practice is common, it makes it difficult for the landscape architect to go beyond a cosmetic role. The designers attempted to do something far more ambitious in the Shenyang campus plan, and they achieved a great deal under these constraints.
Turenscape's principal, Kongjian Yu ,International ASLA – who also is dean of GSLA – convinced the client to use the form of rice fields as the main organizing design element for the campus plan. Yu also insisted on creating an area of the campus where existing rice fields could continue to function as a productive landscape. Shenyang is the capital of Liaoning province in northeast China, an area known for not only as a major automotive manufacturing center but as the source of a short-grain rice renowned throughout China. Yu's concept for the campus had two major objectives: creation of a high -quality environment for education and incorporation of elements of the traditional agricultural environment as a symbol and reminder of the historical and contemporary role of agriculture in China. The resulting rice paddy area not only serves as a symbolic link to the heritage of the region, but it is also a functional field that produces food consumed in the campus dining facilities daily.
The rice paddies are located in the southwest region of the campus and cover approximately 3 hectares(7 acres) of the campus' approximately 200 acres. I visited the project in March and late July. The two visits provided very different views of the landscape.
When I visited in early spring, the area was a study in light and dark earth tones.
The strong first impression created by the southwestern part of the campus where the rice fields are located is an ordered grid of light-colored straw set against an expanse of dark soil. Green shoots had not yet become visible, and the area was lightly dusted with snow in the morning. There was a strong visual contrast between the path system and the fields at this time , too. However, even this was a study in brown. The fields gave little hint of the lush green season that wood follow.
The visual impression created by the rice fields ultimately proved to be stronger from a distance than close up. From the roof of the campus buildings, the fields are stunning as a design pattern and offer a magnificent plan view . however , the initial visual intrigue wears thin relatively quickly on the ground. The experience of walking through the fields becomes somewhat monotonous, in part due to the constant elevation. The various crops incorporated into the agricultural landscape provide some textural interest , but the views are otherwise uneventful.
This impression held true during both early spring and midsummer. I had a similar experience during my visit to the campus in july. Initially, Iwas overwhelmed by the green expanse of the rice fields and other crops and the ordered quality of the agricultural landscape. But the experience on the ground offered little complexity beyond the initial impressions. If anything, the landscape is less accessible during its lush season. The design provides little relief from the harsh summer sun, and it is difficult to enjoy the landscape for more than an hour. Again, the view from the roof of the campus building adjacent to the fields was stunning in July, but the landscape on the ground was far less exciting.
The lush green of the rice fields in July offers a sharp reminder of the richness of the soil that lies under the campus. At least four types of crops were scattered through the fields. in addition to the rice paddy, the larger campus also has patches of agricultural land growing soybeans, aubergines, green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and squash. All of these vegetables find their way to the tables of the university dining halls.
Late in the day, when the sun was lower, I visited the rice paddies again. The area was alive with frogs and insects. University officials note that the rice fields have become a habitat for frogs, freshwater crabs, and some types of insects. Like the produce of the fields, the crabs and frogs are also harvested as food. They are served at special banquets held for dignitaries visiting the campus.
Neither pesticides nor herbicides are used to treat the campus agricultural fields, partly because of a long tradition by local farmers to allow frogs to inhabit the rice fields during the wet cycle. Herbicides or pesticides would harm the frog population. In addition to the frogs, a type of fish known locally as loach is cultivated. This fish eats mosquito larvae and minimizes the mosquito population when the rice paddies are in their muddy cycle.
A system of pedestrian paths cuts through the fields to bring visitors close to the crops. The path system consists of a main pedestrian way about twelve feet across with three-foot wide paths intersecting it. Narrow, foot-wide concrete paths branch off to provide direct access to the fields. The main paths are made of light-colored granite. The granite and concrete path system creates a striking contrast with the lush green crops that surround the paths.
The day-to-day work of tending the agricultural land on campus is carried out by local farmers who have been hired by the university. Students and faculty join in the agricultural work for two major campus holidays. The first Saturday after mid-May has been designated Rice Planting Day by the university administrators. Students and faculty mark the day by going to the fields and planting rice seedlings, followed by celebrations on campus. On the last Saturday of October, a similar holiday takes place for Rice Harvesting Day. These celebrations were created by the university administration as part of the effort to raise the consciousness of students about the agricultural sector and instill greater pride in agriculture. Programs are directed to informing students about the agricultural heritage of the local area and the nation of China.
Student and faculty impressions
During my second visit to the campus, I had two separate informal meetings: one with a group of architecture faculty and the other with the architecture students.
The teachers noted that the agricultural landscape concept is a non-traditional campus form and expressed pride that it makes their university identity “cutting-edge”. Faculty indicated that it is attracting the attention of students nationally and is helping to bolster the school's reputation for being progressive. The idea of a productive landscape that also functions as a demonstration farm – as opposed to a one-dimensional ornamental landscape – was cited by the administrators as one of the innovative aspects of the design. The teachers are optimistic that the campus design will help to promote innovative ecological thinking in the design work carried out by students.
The faculty also had some criticisms of the design. They noted that it was clear that the landscape design was formulated after the buildings were designed. They felt the basic landscape concept was strong, but that there was not enough visual variety in the various open spaces and that the physical links between buildings and landscape were insufficient. Apart from the award-winning rice paddy project, much of the open space of the campus is in courtyards. Apparently the courtyards are inaccessible to students and faculty because the ground-level doors have been locked for management purposes. This sort of disconnect between design and restrictive regulation of use unfortunately is all too common in China. Decades of scarcity have given the objective of preserving facilities – even at the expense of use – a very high priority.
The students expressed very positive views about the rice fields, but they were concerned that the location was too remote from the instructional facilities. Students liked having the view of the fields from classrooms, and they visited the fields when they had spare time. However, they felt the theme expressed by the rice fields was not fully integrated into the rest of the campus design – particularly the courtyard gardens. They were very concerned about the inaccessibility of the courtyard gardens, and they believed that the design would be more successful if they could use the courtyards for leisure and study.
Students indicated that they appreciated the ecological habitat created by the new agricultural landscape, but they also found it unfortunate that the same level of environmental awareness was not employed in building design. Some of the students from small rural villages in agricultural areas also suggested that the rice fields on the campus are less than entirely authentic. They see the as an idealized re-creation of the agricultural landscape. However, even these students agreed very strongly that the rice fields play an important role in helping to keep their classmates conscious of China's agricultural heritage.
The scope of what could be accomplished inevitably was limited by all these factors. The ASLA award was made for an elegant rice field that occupies only a small fraction of a remote part of the campus. It is a testimony to the strength of the design that the rice field plays as important a role as it does in campus life – providing food for campus tables and serving as the centerpiece of important campus celebrations.
The most notable feature of the project ultimately is not its successes as a design ----- It is the vision brought to the project by the designers and their recognition that a university campus is a special place that affects the thinking of people at a critical point in personal development.
Client: Shenyang Architectural University President and Communist Party Secretary Mr. Zhang, and Vice-President Dr.Wang Baolin
Landscape Architecture: Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture and Turenscape, China
Design Team: Kongjian Yu, International ASLA; Lin Shihong, Long Xiang, Han Xiaoye, Han Yi, Wang Danwei.
Architecture: Tang Hua , Shenzhen, Guangdong ,China.
Mary G.Padua,International ASLA, teaches at the University of HongKong's Faculty of Architecture and is principal of MGP Studio.