Rendering of the arts complex being designed by MAD Architects in Harbin
Over the past three years, foreign architects and designers have poured into China, fleeing economic crises at home and pinning their hopes on this country’s explosive growth. It is, after all, a place that McKinsey & Company predicts will build 50,000 skyscrapers in the next two decades, the equivalent of 10 New Yorks. MAD’s staff consisted almost entirely of mainland Chinese when Gillen arrived in mid-2009; today, nearly half of his 50 colleagues are foreigners, with designers from Holland, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Colombia, Japan and Thailand. “The economic crisis,” Gillen says, “is a heavy factor in everybody’s thought process.”
This is the expected global economic formula flipped on its head: instead of American workers losing out to the Chinese, China is providing jobs for foreign architects. Even more surprising is the degree of imaginative license that China offers, even demands of, its foreign building designers. With new cities materializing seemingly overnight, international architects are free to think big, to experiment with cutting-edge designs, to introduce green technologies. All at a frantic pace. In a top-down system that favors political will and connections over regulatory oversight and public debate, large-scale projects in China can be designed, built and put to use in the space of just a few years…
“Have you seen the world’s biggest building yet?” shouted Stephan Wurster, an affable 38-year-old Stuttgart native who moved here in December after three years in Beijing. Both he and Kamaljot Singh Panesar, a goateed British architect at the table, have offices in development zones mushrooming on the plains south of Chengdu, not far from a half-completed behemoth called Ocean Park. Under a single roof covering an area of about 25 football fields, Ocean Park is designed to include hotels, shopping malls, aquariums, amusement parks and a simulated ocean with a white-sand beach.
Wurster takes more than a passing interest in the Chinese-designed building: it stands directly across from the site where he is overseeing construction of a contemporary art center for his bosses at Zaha Hadid Architects. The same Chinese investor behind Ocean Park, in fact, is financing the arts center as a gift to Chengdu. And what city leader wouldn’t be flattered to receive a cultural icon designed by a world-famous architect? Still, Hadid’s firm has had to make compromises — overhauling the sinuous design because local officials thought it looked like a snake, which is considered bad luck. “Even on status projects,” Wurster said with a laugh, “there’s no carte blanche in China…”
…Many foreign architects in China sense that they are operating in the dark, toiling in a system they dimly understand. Real estate development in China is a murky business. There is little transparency — and lots of horse trading — in everything from the acquisition of land to the awarding of bids and competitions. In all but the highest-profile projects, foreigners are largely sidelined during the building process itself, which by law and tradition is controlled by local design institutes.