Perkins+Wills’ Science Building, XJTLU

—- by Nikhil Seewoo and Zhu Runzi  —-

Covering around 160,000m2, Xi’an Jiatong-Liverpool University North Campus was the first step towards the creation of an international learning, teaching and research environment in China. The campus, which was started in 2006 and finished in 2013 (albeit with a huge fifth campus site due to be finished by 2017), comprises four distinct zones: The central Teaching & Learning block, the Science & Research blocks, the Administration and Library building and finally the Engineering and Management blocks.

Capture2The Science & Research building was the first new build on the campus, and became the design reference point for the rest of XJTLU’s north campus development. Its architectural language – the creation of renowned American architecture firm, Perkins+Wills.- has been maintained throughout its group of four rectangular south/north facing buildings.

The composite 5 storey building is 100m x 60m with each of the four 20m-wide blocks linked together by a series of corridors, roof gardens and pathways. These connections, mainly found on the second and third floor unify the whole complex into a single entity. In between each building, a sizable lecture theatre takes up most of the ground floor space; lecture classes, student studios and relaxation spaces above; and the higher floors designed mainly as office and labs.

The external ceramic cladding on the east/west façades are mosaics based on a three earthy-toned red colour coupled with an assortment of both large and small windows deeply recessed to provide maximum shading. The north/south facing side is composed of a group of large clear and patterned glasses coloured in different shades of green and brown, reflecting a patchwork of agricultural fields as seen from the air. Indeed, this land wa agricultural up until 2006 when it was bought up and offered as part of the Suzhou Industrial Park development, the brainchild of the Chinese and Singaporean governments. The relocated farmers have been re-employed as campus gardeners, dealing with the well-designed landscaping within the site as well as around the planted roadways and central reservations.

XJTLU-Science_Engineering3However, systemic construction issues – predominantly poor detailing and shoddy materials and workmanship – coupled with irresponsibility in maintaining the building and the campus has been presented with a variety of physical setbacks that mght be expected on a building ten times its age: moisture penetration, neglected green walls, fading colours, rusted untreated metalwork, etc. The entrances are not as inviting as the other departments primarily due to the fact that they hidden from view, seemingly devoid of life and the poor construction quality is clear in the cracking walls and rickety paving. The overhangs are supported on huge columns sheltering some of the vertical planting wall. It should have been obvious that no daylight will result in dead plants.

The interior circulation is straightforward with study rooms and offices divided by a long corridor and the washrooms situated on the extreme ends of the building. Occasional widening of the corridors alongside the staff offices create pleasant seating study areas situated on the south facing walls. The semi-opaque glass walls allow daylight to lighten the central passageway, even though artificial lights are still needed for proper lighting even during the day. One issue that was noticed in the layout was the impractical conversion of small spaces into storage rooms, at times not even more than one and a half metre wide and also conversion of these small spaces into corridors leading to meaningless secondary class doors for or service units.

Internal relaxation spaces although being small are smartly placed on the second floors with accessibility to both daylighting and views to the outside creating a pleasant and lively environment whereas external public spaces on the connecting roofs are often devoid of activities, neglected and rarely used. Indeed, the steel staircases are so rusty as to dissuade anyone from taking the risk to use them.

XJTLU-Science_Engineering2XJTLU-Science_Engineering4The rest of campus is expansive and pleasant, although in summer there is very little shelter from the relentless heat, nor shadowed public seating to rest and converse. It has huge, landscaped piazzas, lower level shopping links that will soon emerge as a tunnel feeding the South campus site expansion, and many, many open-air sporting facilities. The second phase of the north campus looks eerily like the Perkins + Will building, but without their involvement, it seems.
However, aside from these minor construction issues that are predominantly cosmetic (but with maintenance implications) and all-too-common to China’s recent construction boom, improvements in quality control are beginning to emerge. After all, the buildings are quite pleasant and the campus expansive.

Created through a partnership between two higher education institutions: Xi’an Jiatong University and Liverpool University this campus is rapidly becoming a model of education in the Chinese educational sphere. The north campus reflects the university’s vision with its consistent and contemporary architecture and although not faultless, the campus has greatly augmented the University’s facilities and serves on a daily basis as a great place to be.