China's dramatic rise has manifested itself in urban growth and a growing collection of stunning modern buildings, increasingly designed by native Chinese architects. Several of these buildings belong to new or massively expanded university campuses each featuring its centrepiece ‘library’. Other libraries have formed part of school or community campuses but, not generally being in standalone buildings, have been less dramatic although, ironically for the same reasons, it is these buildings that possibly show greater organizational thought.
Not unsurprisingly the emphasis of recent Chinese design has been on external form, where dramatic shapes and modern materials celebrate power, progress and an ability to match what is being done elsewhere in the world. Less thought has been paid to the subtleties of internal function. This review has revealed relatively traditional notions of what might constitute the library or ‘learning centre’. To suggest that architectural emphasis is only on the dramatic would be to sell these many talented architects short, however. The subtlety and beauty of the limited number of buildings reviewed reveals an architectural potential that will no doubt continue to grow.
Chinese library design is therefore in its infancy compared with the west and reflects the priorities of the current regime. A centralized system based on bureaucratic control does not provide much opportunity for innovation. In particular the liberal attitudes to learning and teaching that underpin the newer and more experimental UK higher education libraries appear to be absent in China. The result is a focus on library operations in most of the libraries reviewed – in simple design terms a fairly regimented arrangement of book stacks and study tables.
Seen more positively it is essential to remember that the Chinese educational system is very different from that in the west and has been for thousands of years, so much so that the Chinese mentality is different, accepting – even welcoming – a degree of control and imposed order. It is therefore clearly inappropriate to judge Chinese educational practice by the criteria that have been adopted more recently in Europe, although China is increasingly adopting western styles of operation and is increasingly operating in a western world.