NYU Shanghai’s New Bund campus has been completed and excitement is buzzing around the new facilities and design. But how did NYU Shanghai end up anchored in Qiantan?

“Basically, we were outgrowing the academic building,” at Century Avenue, NYU Shanghai vice chancellor Jeffrey Lehman told a forum in Shanghai about the original ethos behind selecting Qiantan as the new campus site.

“We knew that when we moved to the Academic building on Century it would not be ourpermanent home. It was not designed to accommodate our university at a steady rate. It was going to be the transition,” he said.

Four key contributors to the Qiantan campus’ development were brought together for a public forum in the school by Stern Real Estate Group in March to discuss and answer questions about development of the New Bund campus.

Professor Lehman, one of the main school leaders driving the key parties involved in making the campus possible, was joined by Terry Liu, director of Facility Management, Rebecca Cheng, principal at KPF Architecture, and Kenney Zhu, manager of Facility Management.

The vice chancellor said he had been talking with the Pudong government for a year about where a new campus could be located in the future.

“Eventually [they] came to us in 2015 and said we have a space for you in Qiantan,” he said. “At the time there was only the Sports Center and Wellington school (in the area) but everything else was undeveloped.

“And they said ‘just close your eyes and imagine Lujiazui 2.0 instead of just office towers’. “They said ‘this is going to be new urbanism, it’s going to integrate residential, office, retail, hotel, hospital, cultural centers, everything, within walking distance, and this space will be the perfect anchor and you will be the only university in Qiantan’,” Professor Lehman recalled.

Eventually accepting the Pudong government’s offer, the vice chancellor and other NYUSH administrators began to work with it and architects KPF on brainstorming a new campus design. Discussions initially focused on how the new campus should reflect the mission of the university and were very important for construing the design and allowing NYU to have a say in how the campus should express these ideas, said Rebecca Cheng, a principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) Architecture, the company that designed the Century Avenue campus, and now this Qiantan campus.

Her main goal was to translate the vision for the campus given to the architects by the school into reality and to ensure the project ran smoothly.

Cheng explained some of the design choices applied to the new campus. “You’ll notice the campus has portals – east, west, north and south,” she said. “Each of them has a functional purpose, but also meaning. We know that 50 percent of NYU Shanghai students are coming from overseas, and 50 percent are local so we wanted to create a truly integrated experience for all the students and faculty,” she said about the campus gateways. “We wanted all the spaces we created to allow people to mingle and learn from each other,” she said.

NYU Shanghai wanted to optimize the available space as best as possible, with a goal to avoid creating “academic silos, and to encourage interdisciplinary creativity,” Cheng said. So, unlike other typical universities, and to avoid these silos, the designers “deliberately blurred the boundaries of all departments and encouraged people to move around.”

Another principal designer from KPF, Jill Lerner, provided further insight into these ideas in a separate interview. She pointed out how unique the campus is. “It’s not segregated buildings like you would have on many campuses, where you go from the science building to the English building to the faculty building, to the admin building. ”

The designers had to understand that NYU Shanghai is still changing and growing all the time, Lerner said. The campus needed to be multifunctional while centralized. “[NYU] wanted interconnectivity and flexibility so that nobody felt completely isolated from each other, and so you could walk around the campus, inside or outside, and easily interact or see what’s going on in a different discipline,” she said.

Another design choice, Cheng said, was influenced by the sun, which she noted helped her navigate the campus during the first few weeks. “The south side of the building has a cutout to introduce more sunlight to the courtyard.”

Also, many of the key spaces in the campus, such as the auditorium, the library, the sky bridge, and the atrium, all are set up in ways to allow a “dialogue between the university and the rest of the community. At night, those spaces will be lit within so that our neighbors can clearly see what we’re doing here.”

KPF also knew that for the Lujiazui Group, which helped fund and build Lujiazui as well as Qiantan, this building was much more than just our university, Lerner said.

“To them, it was supposed to be the cultural anchor of the Qiantan district. It wasn’t just a building for NYU, it was also a building that had to be open to the community and inviting to the community.

“That’s why there are a lot of public programs on the ground floor. The Art Gallery is in the front corner, and then there’s the four portals that allow the community to see in and know what’s going on and for students to see out.”

She said the idea of interconnectivity really helped shape the campus. The courtyard, for example, was also an aspect of major discussion. “Should it be just a big green grass space, like an American university where everybody just plays Frisbee?” she offered as an example. “Or should it be much more defined in the way most Chinese gardens are?”

There were also choices of how to create a university that reflects both Eastern and Western elements, including “important material uses like all of the stair railings, which are reminiscent of Chinese screens. And water being used as a transitional symbol at the portals.”

During the design process Lerner and KPF were asked why they were building a gym if the Qiantan area already has many athletic facilities.

“This is a university that has to have international standards, universities have gyms. And so there has to be a gym,” she responded

“Somebody said to me, in China, we don’t really have this much open space for students to gather. You know, they just go to class, and they go home,” she said.

“And we said, well, this is NYU’s standard, and they want students to be on campus. And if you’re going to keep students on campus, you need places for them to hang out, places for them to eat, relax, socialize, have coffee, have events, have conferences, whatever they’re going to do. “There were things like that which are absolutely worth fighting for, that make a good campus,” Lerner said.

“And then there was, of course, the tree,” she said, the tree which now stands in the heart of the university’s quad as its centerpiece.

“When the university was given the tree as a gift, it was amazing trying to decide where to put it, how you could physically do it. And how you could put it in an important location where it’s visible,” she said.

“Oh, my goodness, there were so many fire truck access limitations because they had to allow fire trucks inside the courtyard. It was really quite complicated (dealing with the tree).” But where did this complicated and amazing tree come from?

It is reputed to have been grown in Fuzhou during the Qing dynasty. Around 2002, a planned river diversion in the city was set to destroy 10,000 of these trees.

As Professor Lehman told the story at the forum, a businessman from Germany who was working in Shanghai “was deeply saddened” by the fate of the trees and decided he would save them all.

On hearing about the new campus, the businessman, a parent of an NYU student, gifted the university a tree from the eventual 8,000 that he had saved from Fuzhou.

The tree standing in the courtyard today is reputedly 120 years old. According to Rebecca Cheng, the Chinese saying 十年树木,百年树人 which translates as “it takes 10 years to nurture a tree, but 100 years to train a person” epitomizes the symbolism of the tree.

The transition is officially over. Much like the tree, NYU Shanghai is now rooted in the new campus.