China Power

The Importance of Space

Chinese architecture can be lifeless. So it’s no surprise it has an effect on education.

Principal Wang Zheng had approved my plan to create a Special Curriculum to prepare students for study abroad in the United States, but I knew that teachers, parents, and students doubted my experience and my qualifications (who wouldn’t?). So I had to work slowly to win the school over. I thought about the elements of my plan—the organizing of new activities, the hiring of reading seminar teachers, the building of a library, and the renovation of classrooms—and decided that creating new spaces at Shenzhen Middle School ought to be my first initiative.

It seemed that Robert Moses had built China’s new cities, so gigantic and ambitious, so imposing and all-encompassing are the monuments of glass, steel, and concrete. I’ve had meetings with Chinese architects where I’ve pointed out that breathing human beings would find living in their proposed building uncomfortable and stressful, and they’ve invariably replied that the new buildings would look good in pictures. That really was the Robert Moses mentality: buildings as statistics and promotional pictures, triumphs to show off to government officials and to the press, landmarks in a world created and moulded by one’s indomitable will. But even Moses would have balked at the pointlessness and lifelessness of Chinese architecture.

As a journalist I reported on the destruction of Beijing’s hutongs, the tree-lined quiet small alleyways that were Beijing’s arteries, flowing with life and community and tradition, connecting Beijing’s past and present and future. What Jane Jacobs wrote about Manhattan neighbourhoods could also apply to Beijing’s hutongs: a complex, organic web of life, activity, and space that evolved according to the needs and aspirations of its inhabitants. Then Beijing’s Robert Moses-inspired urban planners decided to knock down these vivid and vital neighbourhoods to make room for shopping malls and skyscrapers. Beijing’s hutongs were small and narrow, but they were also open and free, dreamy and limitless. The new skyscrapers, while vast and monumental, made Beijing feel cold and scary, lifeless and claustrophobic. There was that glare from the glass and concrete, that odour from overflowing sewage and newly renovated offices, and that noise from car horns and construction drills. And above all there was that stunting feeling of insignificance and confusion and alienation that came from living in a city where residents no longer lived and interacted but served and obeyed.

The classrooms at Shenzhen were cramped and sterile, with bad lighting and even worse air circulation. The school had green space, but it was fenced in. Gates and walls ordered the movement of students, and the school suffered from too many choke points—doors or stairways where students massed together during the changing of classes. And the school was overflowing with dead space, large concrete patches that were open and accessible but were so ugly and unseemly that students stayed far away. The school, borne out of utilitarian and mechanical planning, now needed a little more organic growth and Jane Jacobs.

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So I began experimenting. First, I had a team of students re-design an unused office. The office was small and ugly, populated by gray metal cabinets. The students cleaned and cleared the room, re-painted the room from a hard white to a soft eggshell yellow, and went shopping at IKEA. They put in tables and chairs and sofas, and the room was suddenly teeming with life and interaction. After this initial success, in less than a year’s time, this enthusiastic and creative team of students would go on to design and renovate a coffeehouse, a reading room, new classrooms and offices, and a media centre (which housed the Special Curriculum’s daily newspaper and English magazine). They did so all with IKEA furniture, and two of them for the sake of efficiency and expediency just memorized the IKEA catalogue.

The altering of Shenzhen Middle School’s physical space was important for several reasons. The introduction of public spaces like the coffeehouse made the campus more friendly and intimate, and the bright, spacious, and colourful classrooms encouraged interaction and involvement. The light movable IKEA tables and chairs meant that students could re-arrange the rooms according to their needs and purposes. The rooms were multi-functional as well, taking into account the individual study and work habits of the students: the reading room had small rooms for individual study and large tables for group study, and the media centre had individual work stations but also conference tables. Above all, the physical space empowered students to think of the possibilities instead of the limitations of their environment—they could now interact with and shape their space instead of being confined and trapped in them.

In my next entry, I’ll discuss the creation and development of the Special Curriculum activities.