Architects in China — building the dreams of an apprentice abroad

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.

Daniel Gillen at the unfinished Wood Sculpture Museum in Harbin, China

As foreign architects continue to arrive, there is also increasing competition for jobs and business. Some international firms have even started lowballing bids to try to buy their way into the market — a development that is “killing Western firms here,” says the Shanghai-based Dutch architect Daan Roggeveen, who is the co-author of a book on China’s new megacities. In the meantime, Chinese and foreign firms alike are moving to localize their staffs — both to cut costs and to cultivate a new generation of Chinese architects, many of whom have trained abroad…

A few miles from the wood-sculpture museum near Harbin, a far bigger cultural landmark is rising on the banks of the frozen Songhua River. When it is finished, the Harbin Cultural Island — the MAD-designed opera house and performance center I saw modeled in the office — will look like a trio of snow-swirled mountains. Gillen was checking on the progress. “Three years ago,” he admitted, “I’d never even heard of Harbin.”

As we clambered to the top of this construction site…it somehow made sense that Gillen’s planned year in China had extended to almost three. In his previous job at a New York firm, he said, “I spent a year and a half doing concept designs that never got built.” When I asked him how long his China sojourn might last, he smiled: “How’s the New York real estate market doing?” As the winter sun hung over the horizon, Gillen walked around the half-completed opera house — “a baby being born,” he called it — and added: “I’m in a lucky position. I don’t know if the pace of growth in China is sustainable, but I’ll ride it as long as I can.”

This is not the first piece I’ve posted on foreign architects getting their start in China. But, it’s the first about young architects working on a grand scale.

Please RTFA. It is several pages long with anecdotes that illustrate the adventure. Some will succeed, some are succeeding.

Some of the ex-pats are heading back home for one reason or another more to do with their personal lives than anything else. As it always is. Still – an interesting tale especially for me. Before I retired I worked with some of the best builders and architects in Santa Fe. Generally, it was a pleasure.

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