Peking University
Aaron Betsky Peking University

As those of you read this blog with any regularity know, I am obsessed with the American campus. To me, it is the paradigm of how to create a community through architecture, one whose shared values and belief in the building of a better world is embodied in its physical structures. That might be a naïve and idealistic idea of what the campus can be, but I believe that it still survives. Not only that, but, although the idea is an American one (based mainly on British precedents), it has been exported around the world for at least a century. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure—and the pain—of visiting the campus of Peking University in Beijing, and saw both the remains of that ideal translated into a hybrid between American and Chinese forms, and its dissolution into the bland and closed containers for research endeavors that are now bulldozing, sometimes quite literally, the remains of the open campus tradition.

To get a sense of how far we have fallen, just take a look at the current roundup of academic buildings that Architectural Record recently assembled. I have no doubt these are the cream of the crop, but that just shows how desiccated the fields of academic architecture have become. From Rafael Vinoly, Hon. FAIA’s typically bland exercise in glass and steel that is indistinguishable from your average Midwestern convention center, to the elegant, but ultimately mute and rather pedestrian box Johnston Marklee designed for UCLA’s graduate arts studios, the range goes from the offensive to the forgettable to the serviceable. None of these structures contributes to their campus beyond being polite forms—often because they are not even on the main campus. The sense that every part of a university not only shelters classrooms, dorms, offices, labs, or student services, but also helps bring all of the actors together to form a prototype community that each member can later carry on in their own lives, is absent.

The only alternative seems to be the kind of clever and elegant, but uninventive evocation of the past Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, and his ilk pursue. These structures, especially the two new residential colleges at Yale Stern designed, at least continue the campus tradition, even if the modern technology of both building and learning exposes the thin artificiality of their nostalgic forms.

Peking University
Flickr/Creative Commons/ありわかだ... Peking University
Peking University
Flickr/Creative Commons/Ken Marshall Peking University

I am afraid that the same hollowing out and closing off is happening at Peking University. The original campus, which the institution took over from Yenching University when the more prestigious and older university moved out of the Forbidden City in 1952, was designed by the American architecture firm of Murphy & Dana, headed by the Yale-trained architect Henry Murphy. When the campus was first designed in 1920, Talbot Hamlin was the chief designer. The original buildings used an expanded and reshaped lake that was part of an old imperial gardens as its main feature. The buildings were meant over time to completely surround that body of water, offering a version of the American campus quad that came directly out of the Chinese landscape tradition, in which composed views are more important than your actual occupation of the space. The part that was built—mainly a series of U-shaped buildings in the southwest corner—combined concrete construction and Beaux-Arts-based plan organization that was as generically functional as much as it was “western” with the architects’ sense of Chinese detailing.

Peking University
Aaron Betsky Peking University
Peking University
Aaron Betsky Peking University

The image-making, though, is remarkably effective. Red-painted (nonfunctional) pilasters rise up past white stucco walls to support friezes resembling the beams you might find in a temple, and roofs include layered tiles that end in stamped metal ornament. These features are just enough, along with some of the detailing around windows and doors and some carved animals around the stairs, to give the buildings a connection to that tradition of temples and palaces that had long sheltered academic work in China.

Fake? Absolutely, although the allusion is an effective one. How effective is clear when you see how subsequent generations tried to more faithfully copy temples and pavilions from the millennia-long tradition of Chinese architecture while losing the modular “yingzao fashi” system and the development of that into the “cai” bracket elements as they tried to accommodate modern programs. Even worse are the even more recent structures that do not even try to nod at location, eschewing any sense of place in favor of efficiency.

Peking University
Aaron Betsky Peking University
Peking University
Aaron Betsky Peking University

Moreover, the original buildings surround courtyards that are both contained by the buildings that house various academic departments, and open to the larger campus. The result, which, in the buildings I saw—the home to the landscape and art programs—had become even more effective through the addition of student-led cafes and libraries, is a layering of public and gathering spaces that reaches from the classroom all the way to the campus and beyond.

Now Peking University is developing very large new buildings along the major east-west boulevard on its norther edge. None of these appear to have much merit in terms of making public spaces, but, as most of them are still under construction, their contributions to the university remain to be seen. What is already clear is that they turn their back on the lake and march down the avenue like so many new office blocks. At least the campus-adjacent hotel where I was staying, part of development the university sponsored, sits back from that road, embracing a courtyard and sheltering behind a small office building to its north. It is a shame that this model, along with one that would then connect such courtyards to the rest of the campus, is not apparently part of the university’s future.

Peking University
Flickr/Creative Commons/LWWang Peking University
Peking University
Flickr/Creative Commons/CanaryWu Peking University

I get it. Open and public spaces are expensive, do not bring in revenue, and are difficult to control (a big concern in China). Moreover, universities want to spend money on buildings that can attract donors, students, faculty, and research dollars (or Yuan), and, although a pretty campus helps, it usually is not the main part of the attraction. Finally, the whole notion that a university is a place where you learn how to be a citizen and wake up to the past, present, and future of your society is also something on the way out.

That does not mean we should not continue to argue for its relevance and importance, and to hope that, sooner or later, the fact that universities that still perform that function and have the kind of campus that embeds those ideals into their very structure remain among the most popular and prestigious. The campus is a vital part of our past and our future, here and everywhere else in the world, and I will continue to argue for its importance.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.