Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Buildings and history...

Well, as you will have gathered from the previous post, we are now pretty well settled in Nanjing, and aware of how quickly time is passing. I have taught my first class, and, as I like to say, at least no one threw any tomatoes! But I'll write more about that another time.

Today I want to turn to an avocational interest of mine, architecture. Anyone who comes to urban China today can't help but be impressed by all the building. The Beijing Olympics represented perhaps the apex of Chinese money in search of world-class architects, with some stunning results (if also some widespread destruction of Beijing's built past). Nanjing, too, is undergoing rapid change as big money acquires and rebuilds old city blocks. Nanjing University is also taking part in the building boom, now in the process of building its third (and newest) campus.

The home campus, where Jill and I are headquartered, represents in its buildings much of twentieth-century China, and not always to the benefit of the campus appearance. Now more than 100 years old, Nanjing University inevitably reflects the complicated history that gave the world today's China.

One page of that history has interested me for some time--namely, the connection between the original university campus and the Chicago architectural firm of Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton.  Students of America's Prairie School architecture will know that Dwight Perkins was a first-cousin of Marion Mahoney Griffin, spouse and partner to Walter Burley Griffin, whose Ricker House on Broad Street is one of Grinnell's finest buildings. And it was Dwight Perkins who in 1913, just when the Griffins were moving to Australia where they hoped to design the new capital, Canberra, recommended Griffin to the University of Illinois as Chair of the Department of Architecture.

What may be less-well known is that Perkins's colleague, William K. Fellows (1870-1948), was apparently the main architect for a whole collection of buildings at Nanjing University.  Perkins, Fellows & Hamilton in fact designed many schools, principally in the US Midwest, so it is hardly surprising that the firm should also have designed a university. But exactly how they came to design Nanjing's university is not clear—at least not yet to me, although I hope to improve on my ignorance while I am here.  But an article in the January 28, 1925 issue of The American Architect reports that "Through the recent activity of Mr. J. E. Williams, of the University of Nanking, money was given toward the building and endowment of a greater university" (58).  Among the donors was Mrs. Cyrus McCormick of Chicago (who endowed the first four dormitories), a Mr. Swasey of Cleveland (Science Building), Mr Severance (administration building), and a Mr. Day (chapel).  A the time of this article's publication, more construction was anticipated for yet another science building and a hospital group.

According to the article, the architects visited China so as to "familiarize themselves with the materials used and the methods of construction employed and also with the architectural features of the country." The new buildings were constructed over "old and deserted grave land on the outskirts of the city," and represented what the authors describe as an "acropolis" rising above the lower-lying land south of the new complex.

What strikes the eye of a prairie school enthusiast is the way in which so many features of that architecture meld with designs intended to be Chinese.  All the main buildings were made from brick, "not the small familiar brick of commerce," reports The American Architect, "but brick taken from the old wall of the Manchu city, made hundreds of years ago and some with inscriptions of a former generation. These brick are 4 x 8 x 16 inches in size and weigh about fifty pounds apiece" (64). The trim was made from white marble, still quite resilient now almost a century later. Roofs were all tiled, and ornamented with cornices intended to evoke more typical Chinese designs.  Nevertheless, in numerous details—including the window muntins, the design of door decorations, and even—as on the chapel—the long ribbons of window so often found in Prairie School buildings.

The dormitories apparently formed a set of quads to the west. To judge from the original plan, several of these buildings disappeared when the athletic fields and gymnasium were built. But today one can still enjoy a very pleasant quadrangle that originally served as dormitories but today houses various other offices and departments. These buildings relied upon brick of more conventional dimensions (and origins, one presumes), but retained many of the same design features.

There is much more one might say about all this, and I promise that, if I manage to learn more about these buildings, I will try to restrain my blog enthusiasm on this score.  Still, the buildings—recently very carefully repaired and repainted, no doubt for the university's centennial—reflect an earlier form of cooperation between the US Midwest and the University.

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