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July 27, 2011

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Campus contains spirit of Bauhaus

Many of the historical buildings in this metropolis are either located inside a yard or tucked away in the depths of a narrow lane. But there are still some hidden on a campus, such as the Wenyuan Building crouching in a corner of Shanghai Tongji University.

The university is famous for its school of architecture, one of the top three in China, along with Tsinghua University in Beijing and Southeast University in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. No wonder the campus is a heaven for architecture lovers, dotted with well-arranged streets, green areas and smartly designed teaching buildings.

Among a cluster of architectural gems, the Wenyuan Building is the most noteworthy. This typical Bauhaus-style building is listed as a city-level excellent historical building.

Covering an area of 5,050 square meters, Wenyuan Building was built in 1953 and named after ancient Chinese mathematician/astronomer Zu Chongzhi (AD 429-500), whose courtesy name was Wenyuan. It was designed by two Chinese architects who both worked in the university at that time, Professor Ha Xiongwen (1907-1981) and a young faculty named Huang Yulin (1927-1953).

Ha was one of China's first-generation architects who had studied at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States along with Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), a prominent architect in contemporary China.

"Before 1949, Ha was a senior official in Kuomintang Construction Department and once contributed to the 'Greater Shanghai Plan,' the first-ever urban planning project in Shanghai initiated by the Nanjing Kuomintang government in the late 1920s and early 1930s which was unfortunately interrupted by Japanese invaders in the 1930s," recalls Dong Jianhong, an 85-year-old urban planner who worked in Tongji University for more than 60 years and a former colleague of Professor Ha.

"I remember Ha was in charge of the construction of the Wenyuan Building but the design work was practiced by the young and talented Huang Yulin," says Dong.

In the book "A Life in Tongji University for 60 Years," Dong gave a favorable review of Huang's work:

"Deeply affected by the Bauhaus school, Huang had adapted the spirit of Bauhaus into the building. He paid attention to the practical function, used a simple yet vivid manner and achieved a harmony between the use of space and the shape of the building. He had also abandoned unnecessary decorations popular in classic architecture."

At first glance, the light-gray building does resemble the one that Berlin-born architect Walter Gropius, one of the founders of modern architecture, designed for the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany, in 1919.

The general simple-cut style, the unusually tall windows and even the foyer highlighted by an artful staircase made the Wenyuan Building a sister of the original Bauhaus-signature building on the Weimar campus.

Despite the prevailing conservatism at the time, the Bauhaus style known for its radically simplified forms and functionality became one of the most influential currents in Modernist architecture from 1919 to the 1930s. It also had a profound influence upon subsequent developments in art, interior design and industrial design.

But maestro Gropius may have never imagined the influence was so profound that China would construct a building in the same style decades later which is still functional today.

Wenyuan Building is currently used by the school of architecture as a teaching building. It is well preserved after a renovation several years ago.

The original gray terrazzo flooring remains, as does the butter-hued handrail of the staircase, which is shaped in a stunningly beautiful curve.

The tall windows are not only stylish, but also functional, allowing bright sunlight and the pleasing scenes of greenery outside to enter the building. Compared with traditional public buildings, it is simple but dynamic, full of vivacious variations. It must be more than pleasant to study the knowledge of architecture in such an impressive structure.

However stylish and functional the building was, its talented young architect Huang did not see it in all its splendor as he died suddenly of brain cancer at the age of 26, shortly before the construction was completed in 1954.

"Also in 1953 he had planned the campus of Shanghai Conservatory of Music and designed a hospital in Xuhui District, both of which were excellent works," writes a retired architect and former student of Huang named Wang Jiqin in a commemorative article in 2006. "So the year 1953 was the peak time and also the last year of his very short career as an architect."

In a nationwide award for architecture in 2007, Wenyuan Building was voted by a panel of experts as one of the "10 unforgettable Chinese architectures of the 20th century" along with the Park Hotel in Shanghai and the Central Museum in Nanjing.

Life is short and was especially short for the talented architect Huang. But fortunately his Bauhaus-style Wenyuan Building has lived until today on the beautiful campus and remained unforgettable forever in China.


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