The Yin and Yang of Genius Loci

By Craig, Charles | Planning for Higher Education, October-December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Yin and Yang of Genius Loci


Craig, Charles, Planning for Higher Education


This case study design for a new campus in China illustrates how symbolic narrative may be expressed in the physical environment, and calls for multi-dimensional considerations to inform and advance ecologically sensitive and meaningful campus designs everywhere.

KEY POINTS

* New campuses are being built in China.

* These include not only U.S.-affiliate campuses, but also wholly new sites often part of intensified urban developments.

* American-style campuses are sometimes viewed as desirable examples to emulate.

* This article reaffirms the importance of context and sense of place and explores some aspects of new global campuses and cross-cultural symbolism.

* Context is all, and good intention may not be enough. In the telling words of one American architect in an Internet report about a new campus soon to be built in China: "Even though we want to truly build an authentic American experience, we still want to nod to the fact that it is a Chinese location" (Kean XChange n.d., [paragraph] 9).

TOPIC

The Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) is increasingly global in its perspective. Certainly, a number of American members have been active overseas in years past; the trend rises. This observational essay is about new campuses in China. The cultural context and some recent experiences are described both as a report on a developing trend and as a vehicle to prompt thought and discussion about the genius loci and meaning of Western campuses.

China is the 21st-century phenomenon, a nationwide construction zone that includes colleges and universities. New campuses are springing up in China seemingly overnight like the mushrooms that the Goodmans mention in Communitas (Goodman and Goodman 1947). New campuses in China are being built for new Chinese institutions, to accommodate new collaborative affiliations with foreign institutions, and to revitalize established Chinese institutions.

China is the 21st-century phenomenon, a nationwide construction zone that includes colleges and universities.

Relatively few SCUP members have the opportunity during their careers to participate in the creation of a wholly new campus. Most campus fabric (at least in most of North America, South America, and certainly in Europe) is already in place. In the United States, contemporary campus planning is usually a proposition of supplementing and enhancing a built environment already there. Conceptualizing, designing, and building a new campus is an exciting and complicated prospect. Doing so in China adds veils of complexity and, without a doubt, contradiction.

One cause for puzzlement is the sometimes-posed desire for a campus (or campus buildings) designed in accord with American campus principles. Just how literal this expectation is may not be wholly clear, just as it may be unclear whether the expectation is limited to form or encompasses curriculum or operational practices as well. For immediate purposes, we focus here on campus form and explore the light and shadow of the topic, with the objective of reaffirming the importance of context and sense of place.

CONCEPTUAL CONTEXT

China (Zhonghua) is the Middle Kingdom as traditional translations suggest, which, according to some writers, is both a moniker and a philosophical outlook shared with other ethnocentric cultures. One familiar expression of this outlook may be David McCollough's (2011) description of 19th-century Brahmin Boston, encapsulated in paraphrase: "Why travel? We're already here." Although unlike their peers from the Hub of the Universe, the Chinese may have well-founded reasons for being skeptical of things laowai (foreign or foreigner), especially since their culture is somewhat older and more highly evolved in many of the arts. For instance, French cuisine, long the Western epitome of haute, has yet to acculturate such delicacies as shredded, treaded tofu with nano-shrimp. …

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