Ronald Lu & Partners (RLP): Designing people-focussed campuses for the digital age

Business | 15 Nov 2019 1:55 pm

Winner of the HKIA’s ‘2018/19 Special Architectural Award – Architectural Sustainability’ for its design of the Chai Wan campus for the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong (THEi), Ronald Lu & Partners (RLP) has come up with a state-of-the-art learning space that facilitates the seamless exchange of ideas.

“We believe that for any campus, workplace or school, and indeed any environment where learning and development take place, we should celebrate the trinity of humanity, technology and communications,” observes M. K. Leung, Director / Director of Sustainable Design at RLP. “Campuses should be open, borderless places where the free exchange of information and ideas is encouraged, and where new technology allows these ideas to grow and flourish.”

Expertise in campus design

RLP has, since 2000, undertaken a number of significant campus design projects, taking full account of the arrival of the digital age, the new opportunities it has brought and emerging transformation of organisations to ‘learning organisations’. “The proliferation of versatile hand-held devices means people are no longer tied to traditional learning and working spaces,” says Leung, quoting the examples of new technology headquarters like Apple’s Cupertino Headquarters and Google’s Mountain View campus where the sharing of ideas and information overrides other considerations in their design.

“Free from constraints in the learning space, people are supported by technology that allows networking, socialisation, communication and engagement,” Leung notes. “These are precisely the elements of interaction advocated by Steve Jobs to stimulate innovation.”

A microcosm of society

RLP believes the campus community should reflect our wider society, both in terms of social connectivity and architectural infrastructure. Therefore a campus should evoke the dynamics of a small city – complete with plazas, main streets, cafes and town halls.

Leung points out that, aside from THEi which encompasses these design elements, another shining example from the RLP portfolio is a project named Integral in Guilin, China, where a new textile and garment manufacturing plant is organized into different zones like a small city. In addition to a production zone, there is an experience and exhibition zone showcasing technological developments in the industry; a learning centre; a scenic dining facility for staff; and a botanical garden where natural dye crops are planted.

“By creating a pleasant ‘city village’ with multiple environments to stimulate creativity, connection and well-being, this manufacturing campus helps attract and retain talent, thereby gaining a competitive edge in the industry,” Leung explains.

Every space is a learning space

The winning design of THEi’s new campus is aimed at fostering the exchange of ideas – not just within the school community, but also with the wider neighbourhood. Hence, the public realm is barrier-free, as is the street level perimeter zone.

For its interior, an elevated, shaded green plaza on the first floor connects to the surrounding neighbourhood via stairs and a connecting bridge. The extra-wide bridge features greenery and wooden floor, providing a pleasant space for people to stop and socialize, while the green plaza in front of the campus encourages mingling and communication in many forms – dialogue, lectures, presentations, and even performances.

“We’ve created a stage for people to see and be seen,” adds Leung.

The concept of making every space a learning space is also manifested in another project that redevelops and expands the Performing Arts Block of King George V School. The RLP team has ingeniously opened up an abandoned backyard, transforming it into a new prime hub for the school campus. The soul of this new performing venue is undeniably the preserved old banyan tree, under which the amphitheatre and pocket timber decks are used to conduct performances of varying scales.

The architects took the opportunity to introduce primary colours of red, yellow and blue to the building facades, adding vibrancy to the campus. “It’s a bold departure for KGV,” says Leung. “But it has worked wonders for the presentation of the school as a whole, adding to it a strong, positive sense of identity.”

Form follows activities

RLP contends that every campus must be designed for the people who spend the most time there, be they students, researchers or workers. It is their activities that shape the form of the campus. “As every campus is unique, just as every school or company has its distinct vision and mission, we take a proactive and interactive approach to engaging campus stakeholders to ensure their special needs and modes of operation are understood,” Leung notes.

In a project for the Zhuhai new campus of Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University United International College (UIC) which is set around an existing lake, the architects make sure the form of the campus embraces nature at every turn. Each of the building is oriented towards a natural feature, either the lake or the surrounding hillside. The undulating lawn provides a massive green space for people to connect, taking precedence over the academic facilities and amenities nestled underneath it.

Working towards a smart city

Leung underscores the contribution of technology to architectural design. By making use of big data, architects can keep up with moving trends in the community and tune their designs accordingly. The increasing availability of real time city data can also empower architects to take into account the full picture of the environment when they decide on such elements as sizing, positioning, material, and others.

RLP is conducting a microclimate study for a project with Victoria Dockside in East Tsim Sha Tsui. The study, Leung says, will form the blueprint for the design of future sustainable and smart campus.

Based on the expertise built up over the years, RLP is launching a new book on the precepts of campus design next year. The architectural team has distilled their strategies into eight pillars with illustrative examples. “We shall be pleased to share our collective wisdom,” says Leung.

8 Pillars of campus design at a glance

1. Everyone as a Performer

2. Campus as a Small City

3. Form Follows Activity

4. Every Space is a Learning Space

5. Architecture as Identity

6. Learning in Green

7. Flexible for Changes

8. Co-creative Design

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