Singapore Architecture Students Compete to Turn the World's Oldest University Into a Contemporary Campus

Singapore Architecture Students Compete to Turn the World's Oldest University Into a Contemporary Campus
Nalanda University,
(Courtesy wonderlane via Flickr)

Architecture schools have a tendency to compel students to dream big. It is a lesson of life, as well as a lesson of the studio, to begin with a vision and then hone its form through compromise. But a group of architecture students from Singapore stand the chance to learn this lesson on a truly unprecedented scale. Fourteen students have teamed up to produce a master plan for the revival of the 5th century Nalanda University in Bihar, India. The group will present a draft of the plan to the Nalanda University directors, with the goal of partaking in a final competition to design a rehabilitated campus for the ancient institution.

Needless to say, the students are treading on a precious site, one that is thoroughly entrenched in history. The University of Nalanda was founded in the 5th century, making it the first center for higher learning in recorded history. At the height of its activity, the University's pioneering inclusion of residential dormitories helped accommodate a population of 10,000 students and 2,000 professors, brought to Nalanda from China, Japan, Turkey, Greece, Persia, and other far off countries. Its alumni and associates include near-mythical scholars, such as the Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang and the Chinese Buddhist monk I Ching.

The ancient university also possesses an extraordinary architectural heritage, with its vast compounds, temples, meditation halls, and classrooms, interspersed with lakes and parks, and fortified by a massive wall. After centuries of successive sacking and rebuilding, the university has been more or less preserved in its 12th century state, left behind by invading Turks bent on uprooting Buddhism. It was not until 2010 that legislators pledged to pick up the thread of history and revive the ancient site into a functioning, contemporary university.

Under the guidance of Singaporean architect Tay Kheng Soon, the team of 14 architecture students toured the site of the university and conceived of a proposal for its renovation. Their plan consists of a series of state-of-the-art, contemporary buildings, but emphasis has been placed on including a functioning agricultural system within the campus and its immediate vicinity, reports The Hindu. The idea draws from historical precedents, as villages surrounding the ancient university had supplied food to the campus centuries ago. With this in mind, the students envision the new university as a similarly self-sufficient community with the appropriate features to facilitate contemporary cultural, environmental, and ecological studies.

If the proposal finds its way to the final competition, the students will participate in an estimated $1 billion renovation project that has already united China, India, Japan, and Singapore. The hopeful young architects could take on an endeavor that will not only revive a shared piece of world history, but also forge new international bonds. Plus they would have an exceptionally impressive project for their portfolios.