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Tsinghua University in Beijing (Part 2)
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown Architect
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[DSB] We were not asked to do a master plan. We were asked to look at their master plan and use our skills and expertise, and comment and make specific suggestions for one place. Well we probably got out of order with them, because we did a little more than that, we couldn’t stop. We were just… it was just a wonderful problem. And for example, it was a beautiful campus in the beginning that had been built as a, kind of, prep school for people who were going to America to college. And there’re many American buildings but the most spectacularly beautiful things were Chinese landscape and buildings and with lots of beautiful landscape there. And then, when the Communists took over, the rest of the campus became a Russian campus – very regimented, everything separated from everything else. Foreign students here, women students here, graduate women students here, faculty there. We said, ‘Well, why wouldn’t you, at least, let the foreign students share?’ And they said, ‘Oh, no, we give the foreign students a higher level of comfort’. So we said, ‘That shouldn’t be, and anyway if you want to be a world-class university, meeting of the minds is the thing’.  And they didn’t want to say anything, they just… uncomfortable.

And it finally turns out that is part of Party control, to keep the foreign students from indoctrinating their students. They said, ‘At least now the students can go into the other place, before they couldn’t even go in, our students’. Well they were embarrassed by that, and I think, that will change. But athletics is kept… there’s nowhere where you can just sit down. Sitting down is not a good activity it leads to talking. Athletics has to be organised into active athletics and they have standards, so many acres per student and this and that. No, there’s no room for a green space. But look at your campus, it’s too hard edged, you need a green space here. And so on. So, they’re saying… and then they saw the students lying on the lawns, and you know, at Brown, and they couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘Here the students can’t go on the lawns’. So, we were saying, ‘Well, if you’re really want what you’re saying you want, this is the philosophy of it and we can only explain to you, you may want it, you may not’.

Meanwhile some aspects of their campus are, in fact, the Russian parts… are kind of beautiful – they’re worked down to minima and the minima work. And you can get…you can get an imaginative life in some of those minimal dormitories and minimal faculty apartments, they have a beauty themselves and we were very respectful. And the bicycles were stupendous. We called them frontal bicycles.  They come at you, because for thousands of students are here and a classroom for 10,000 students is down here. And they go… it’s a series of classrooms for 10,000 students… and they go by bicycle. You know how we say college students will take a car to go two blocks, they say, ‘College students will take a bicycle to go two blocks’. And there’re bicycles all over everywhere and we’d say, ‘Don’t lose your bicycles, if you’ve got cars you wouldn’t survive’.

And then we started to say to them, ‘You can’t just ignore Peking, you really… it’s making inroads on you and it’s going to take part of your land and you really have to set up relationships. At least if you were in America’, I always added that, ‘the transportation engineers would be telling you, get in touch with the transportation planners in the city around you, make friends with them, be on exchange relationships. One day you’ll need a favour from them.  If you’ve managed to do them a favour, they’ll listen to you’. And then, we went on and we said, ‘Princeton had the Head of GM associated with them and the Head of Mobil associated with them. If they needed some help with the city of Princeton, where do you think they went?’ We said, ‘You have enormous numbers of powerful politicians associated with your…’ now this is a Communist system, so you know, actually the Premier went to Tsinghua University, ‘you should be using that influence. You should be telling people in Beijing not to put a road under your whole campus’, which is one of the plans.

And so, we just shared that kind of expertise and then we left them, because we think that they will go their own way. I don’t know how much of it they will… they have heard and they have listened and they have to debate about what they will do. They will… we showed them a way in which they could use… they wanted to put parking under a mall and we agreed they… it would be a good idea.  We horrified them by saying, it’s not a good idea to put parking under lab buildings, which is one thing we did not do in Michigan. We put it beside but not under because the vibration affects high tech experiments very badly. And also, the cycles of change of a parking structure are different from a building, so, you‘d be doing construction in the parking structure and then louse up the experiments again. So, we warned them about that but they didn’t want to hear that.  But we did show them how the mall would be a good place to put parking and how they could do it. And Bob produced an interesting design for that. I produced a design for a Campus Center at a very important site where they thought to put an administrative building. And, I think, we convinced the administrators not to put an administrative building there – it’s the perfect site for a Campus Center and they need one there. And so, they will guard that site, but apart from that they may not listen very much, we have to wait and see. And you know, when you’re a campus planner, unless you can go on a produce a building which will help direct the plan and interpret the plan, you see the next President arrive and dump everything. Now it’s going to be my watch and I’m going to do something very different. And then, they wonder why they get such disorder on campuses.

Internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi (1925-2018) and Denise Scott Brown (b.1931) have helped transform contemporary design through their innovative architecture and planning. Winners of numerous prestigious awards, their designs have championed multiculturalism, social activism, symbolism, pop culture, history and evolving technologies.

Listeners: Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books include Human Built World, Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, US National Academy of Engineering, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Duration: 6 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: 22nd to 23rd September 2006

Date story went live: 27 May 2010