Yubo Liu: Rethinking the Evolution of China's University Campus Morphology

By Waishan Qiu, MCP, STL Fellow



On February 21, 2017, Prof. Yubo Liu of South China University of Technology (SCUT) delivered the second lecture of the spring 2017 China Talk Series. He highlighted unique histories, aspects, challenges, and implications of the planning and social impacts of university campuses’ morphology in China. Prof. Liu is a visiting scholar at Harvard from the Department of Architecture at SCUT, where he serves as the dean. He delivered his talk to an audience of roughly 30 students, faculty, staff, and guests from the greater Boston area, such as designers from Sasaki.

Prof. Liu began the talk by reviewing the evolutionary history of campus planning and design in China as early as 200 BC. He concluded that, according to the system of ancient teaching, for the rich families, for neighborhoods, for the larger districts, and in the capitals, there were different levels of schools. They were the ancient format of campuses. In 1911, the modern campus was introduced to China by planners and architects from abroad, such as Henry K. Murphy. For example, the Peking University campus was a typical plan during that period, influenced by both Chinese tradition and western universities. However, since 1949, as the new Chinese government established, the campus styles were influenced by Soviet models. From 1978, due to the reform and open policy, China saw a boom in enrollment in higher education. As a result, large campuses gradually became an important feature of urban morphology. Not only mega cities and capital cities, but also some third- and fourth-tier cities had campus zone in the outskirts. In this context, Prof. Liu illustrated different generations of campus designs in China.

To understand Chinese campuses in an urban scale, Prof. Liu problematized the current morphology for several challenges. First of all, due to the speed of development, China’s university campuses had no time to think carefully about all the details. So in the future, they will face many challenges, such as how to meet the increasing needs of the scientific and technological innovation. Moreover, they also often lack the space for future development. For some top universities, they might lack space for future development; for some other universities, there may be insufficient enrollment due to the low birthrate.

Prof. Liu also connected the problems of campuses with the new policy of tearing down the bounding wall by the Chinese central government. He believes that the small blocks and dense road networks are more adaptable to modern life, especially for a country in such rapid development. But he also critically argued that because of its history of urban development, Beijing will never be a gridded city like Manhattan. In the end Prof. Liu pointed out that, with the topic of tearing down bounding walls, one should questioning following challenges: The bounding wall can be easily broken down, but can the life behind the bounding wall be easily changed? As for the traffic, can one single university campus solve the problem of the city? What is the real purpose of tearing down the wall?  Should we should pay more attention to improving the quality of the city life, not just try to create more GDP using another name? If we have no other choice, how can we use this chance to make the campus more suitable for the increasing needs of scientific and technological innovation?

Following Prof. Liu’s talk, Robert Simha, former director of planning at MIT acted as a discussant to stimulate a great conversation and to speculate on the social and community forces behind the physical morphology of campues. Simha illustrated the growth of campus planning as a professional practice in architecture and urban planning for the United States, which was in response to what Prof. Liu had characterized for China. Nevertheless, the practice in the U.S. is smaller, slower, and more diverse. Simha stated that campuses in the U.S. have very sensitive relationships with the larger communities. The character and morphology here in the U.S. respond to the context of community and social environment. For example, he looked at Harvard and MIT. MIT is open for 24 hours a day, while Harvard is closed late at night. It is due to the inherent differences in the type of research happening in these two universities. Scientific experience and technological tests last all day long and do not have a regular working hours, while the law, political science, business, and medical fields do not have to stay in their labs. The MIT campus is continuous as an entity while different colleges in Harvard are spatially and culturally separated. Behind this phenomenon, the underlying reason is because the purpose and intention of these two universities are different. The philosophy of MIT is to break boundaries between different sciences. Different majors at Harvard are not connected or as compact as MIT, and each college at Harvard has its own funding resources. So the colleges are physically, financially, administratively, and culturally more disparate than at MIT. It is the difference in culture that leads to the different results.

The forum was opened to questions from the audience, which covered a wide variety of topics, including a question from Gao Shuqi, a visiting Ph.D. student from Tsinghua University, about why Chinese campuses are often not in human scale. Prof. Liu answered the question specifically with the history of Chinese campus expansion and the contemporary tendency of designers. Visiting scholar Prof. Fu Shihe, also a former China Talk Seires speaker, joined the talk and asked why there are totally different business modes at Harvard and MIT. For example, Harvard is surrounded by the most popular restaurants and bars while MIT is surrounded by offices and poor restaurants. Simha answered question by tracing the totally different histories of Harvard Square and Kendall Square area back to the 1910s and 1960s.