Touching the Good Earth
An innovative campus design reconnects students to
China’s agricultural landscapes.
By Mary G. Padua, International ASLA
The Shenyang Architectural University Campus is an ambitious
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 owned 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
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 Lianoing
Province in northeast China, an area known 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.
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