Learning curves

Learning curves

Before its completion, the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in Changi made headlines for a celebrity donation: Hong Kong action movie star Jackie Chan had gifted four ancient Chinese structures to the campus.

These heritage buildings, which included a Chinese opera stage and a pavilion, are studded near the hostels of the university's 15.8ha site. The buildings, from China's southern Anhui province, are said to date back to the Qing and Ming dynasties, around 370 years ago.

The open campus has seen members of the public and tourists walk into the premises to check out its historical buildings.

But when Singapore's fourth public university opened officially yesterday, it was looking to the future and not the past.

The statement architecture of its four academic buildings, featuring fluid lines and aerodynamic curves, took centre stage. From the top, two of them look like a geometric variation of the number eight, while another resembles a boomerang.

The "number eight" buildings have courtyards in their hollowed middle and house lecture theatres, research centres, classrooms, a library and an auditorium.

These blocks were designed by Amsterdam- headquartered firm UNStudio and home-grown firm DP Architects and cost $470 million to build.

This is the first phase of completed buildings for the school. When it expands in the future, buildings can be added onto the 23ha site, which is equivalent to more than 30 football fields.

In two years, the campus will be linked to the Upper Changi MRT station on the Downtown Line.

Unlike the typical design of university buildings, which designate individual blocks for each faculty, SUTD's campus has all its four faculties sharing the buildings.

This is in part due to the way the curriculum is structured. First-year students follow a common curriculum for three semesters over a year before they pick a specialisation: architecture and sustainable design, engineering product development, engineering systems and design or information systems technology and design.

UNStudio's principal architect Ben van Berkel, 58, says the school is "a model unique to the world".

The Dutchman, who has worked on three other private projects in Singapore including the Ardmore Residence near Orchard Road, adds: "It is a highly interactive space in a compact campus. It stimulates students to interact and be reactive to one another."

The architects have also created versatile, relaxing spaces called "break-out spots". For example, stairs leading to the auditorium resemble bleachers so that students can put on performances or hold student rallies to a seated audience.

In the three-storey library, students can sprawl out on cushions or sloping surfaces. They can also head outside to a garden to enjoy a spot of greenery.

The walkways, too, are big enough for multiple events to go on at the same time, while there are study nooks for students to hold group meetings.

DP Architects' director Jeremy Tan, 52, who has worked on other institutional projects here such as Pei Chun Public School and Maha Bodhi School, says the design had to adapt to a new generation of students.

"Compared with baby boomers, if you ask the young ones today where they are most creative, they might say it's when they are learning on their beds. Our design reflects the way students want to use their spaces today."

The university now has 1,400 students, which include undergraduates and those doing their master's and PhD courses.

The campus also notches up plus points for its green design. The buildings are designed to take advantage of Changi's north-east and south-east breezes, hence reducing reliance on air- conditioning, while louvred facades shade the buildings and their users from direct sunlight.

There are also many green pockets filled with local trees and flowering plants such as the bougainvillaea. Elevators are also tucked away to encourage people to take the stairs, which are spread liberally throughout the campus.

A stone's throw away from the academic blocks are residential blocks, together with sports facilities, including a pool, football field and a tennis court.

These were designed by local companies Surbana International Consultants and Look Architects, and have achieved the Platinum Green Mark from the Building and Construction Authority. The Green Mark scheme aims to encourage developers to come up with environment-friendly buildings.

Students who stay in the hostels can often be seen cycling or walking to class, along a "living spine" which connects the residential blocks to the

"learning spine", says Mr Hoong Bee Lok, an architect and senior director of campus development at the university.

The design was inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Infinite Corridor, a busy central thoroughfare through the American university lined with departments, classrooms and laboratories.

The Ivy League college helped SUTD develop its curriculum and holds mentoring, career development programmes and joint research projects.

SUTD also works with China's Zhejiang University to offer courses and electives here as well as holds research and student and faculty exchanges.

Mr van Berkel, who has taught at various universities such as Princeton University and Harvard University in the US in the last 25 years, says the campus "is an instrument for learning" - in particular, how the design marries a new structure with the old Chinese buildings.

The donated structures, which include two houses named Da Tong and Du Zhe after places in China's Zhejiang province, were restored on the school's premises.

DP Architects' Mr Tan says: "It was a challenge for us to integrate these structures into the plan. But the final product is a good learning tool for the students. They don't just see how things are made today, but also the principles behind how things were put together in the past."

Final-year student Dexter Chew loves the new building and says it is much nicer than the old campus the students were housed in in Dover Drive.

The 24-year-old, who will graduate from the engineering product development faculty later this year, also lives in a double room at the school's hostel premises.

He says: "It's much bigger than our old campus and compared with the other universities, it looks more futuristic. But yet, with the buildings that Chan donated, there is that nice blend of culture. It is really a unique building."

natashaz@sph.com.sg

 


This article was first published on May 9, 2015.
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