Despite historic roots in two eminent institutions − Xi’an Jiaotong University, founded in 1896 as the Nanyang Public School, and Liverpool University, the oldest university school of architecture in Britain − the recently established Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), a Sino-British partnership with a freshly minted Department of Architecture, feels completely new
The campus, which began building works in 2005 and will accommodate 10,000 students when complete, is in Suzhou Industrial Park, a 23-minute ultra-high speed rail journey from Shanghai. Everything about the place suggests that the cellophane wrapper has just come off.
Students and staff alike delight in this burgeoning brave new world, a ready-made centre of learning at the heart of China’s fourth largest urban economy. XJTLU wants to be a university led by research and innovation; the current cohort is paving the way for a generation that will be intellectually agile, technically skilled and internationally mobile.
This pioneer spirit translates into an almost giddy optimism about the future, fuelled by an appetite for all that is new. And yet, despite the emphatic absence of the past in everything around them, students are held back by habits embedded in their collective history.
‘Our students are adept at learning’, says Austin Williams, a faculty member (and guest editor of this special issue) ‘but have to be pushed to think for themselves.’ While debate in the UK worries over falling standards in an educational marketplace increasingly guided by consumer logic, rote-learning and regard for authority still hold sway in countries such as China.
Many who teach at XJTLU recognise the importance of treating these values − rooted in traditions that favour compliance and discretion − with due respect. But didactic instruction is unlikely to create conditions in which students can experience the kinds of insights educationists want for them. If academic vitality is the goal, teachers must be encouraged to nurture creativity.
A tug-of-war between educational innovation and doctrinaire conformity, perhaps of grasping at future possibilities while remaining faithful to shared values, played out in the design studio and also in XJTLU rhetoric. Williams acknowledges that the institution’s commitment to sharing the benefits of international collaboration opens up opportunities for pedagogical renewal. ‘Our teaching faculty is drawn from all over the world; each of us brings something different, but we are all excited by China’s dynamism− you can’t help but be! We have strong, diverse attitudes to teaching, and regularly discuss what the process of creative engagement should be.’
A project by students Zixin Tong and Rui Zhe aptly expresses the tension between new ideas and inherited values in a compact design for a public art gallery located in the tightly-packed old town of Suzhou. The pair analysed the urban grain of the ancient town and concluded, according to design tutor Theo Dounas, that its density ‘overwhelms the visitor’. Deformed and distorted by the pressure of the historic fabric at street level, the building offers relief as it rises, reorienting itself to a wider perspective and more generous illumination on its upper levels.
Later in the academic year, Dounas briefed his students to consider the relationship between public space and civic life in a project that explores how architecture might foster conviviality and social exchange. Mengyi Dang and Mingxuan Xie designed a bridge that not only physically connects different levels and buildings but also breathes life into Wenxin Plaza by anticipating new and different ways of using it. Based on the observation that ‘people like to observe other people in public spaces’, the students envisaged a theatrical opportunity to animate and bring greater spatial order to the square.
The four-year BEng degree offered to undergraduates includes a foundation year during which students follow an intensive English language course. Thereafter they begin the degree proper comprising three years of design-led study taught in English, as are all university courses. After graduating from XJTLU, many students choose to continue their studies overseas, and links with the United Kingdom are strong.
The school offers something of a gateway in both directions; it has provided a staging post and shop window for a number of UK practices, including multinational firm Aedas which has been commissioned for design work on campus, and also a venue for academics and professionals to exchange ideas about a global future in which China will play an increasingly significant role. It perfectly exemplifies the knowledge economy of tomorrow: highly mobile and highly adaptive.