Monthly Archives: March 2012

Politicizing the Pritzker

Ningbo History Museum by architect Wang Shu

Last month, this year’s Pritzker Prize (architecture’s highest honor) was awarded to Chinese architect Wang Shu. The announcement was surprising for a few reasons. For one, consensus around the architecture blogosphere was that the award would go to a more high-profile architect such as Toyo Ito or Steven Holl, both looked over in recent years. Secondly, assuming that the Pritzker jury intentionally chose a Chinese architect, there were others who could have been considered such as Zhu Pei, Ma Qingyun, or Ma Yansong (perhaps still a bit too young).

The Chinese architects mentioned above derive inspiration from China’s ascendancy towards the future, pushing the limits of avant-garde building form. Wang Shu’s architecture, on the other hand, is rooted more in the past, exuding firmness and strength. In this regard, Wang’s architecture is more like last year’s Pritzker winner, Portugal’s Eduardo Souto de Moura, than his Chinese counterparts.

Stephen Smith, writing for the International Business Times, posits that the decision by the Pritzker jury was in fact a deliberate political decision. Wang is often critical of China’s breakneck mode of development: razing entire cities to build what Chinese leadership view as a modern expression of urbanity while cities lose their historical character.

Western media has been so focused on China’s lack of sensitivity to historical preservation that the mostly Western-comprised Pritzker jury choosing a Chinese architect who is on their side of the debate comes as no surprise. Though in the bigger scheme of things, this is unlikely to have much effect on influencing China’s current urban development blitzkrieg to change course to a slower, more thoughtful model. Taking this into account, this year’s Pritzker decision is no different (or ineffectual) as Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo being awarded 2010′s Nobel Peace Prize.

View from the Ground in the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone

New development outside Jiangyou, Sichuan Province

The following post is an adaptation of a comment I made on my good friend and Chengdu-based American writer Sascha Matuszak’s recent ChengduLiving article about the development of the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone. The comment recalls my own experience of a business trip to one of the smaller cities in the zone: Jiangyou, Sichuan Province:

Thanks for the update on the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone, Sascha. Having been to several of the 3rd and 4th tier cities in Sichuan you mentioned (Suining, Mianyang, Nanchong, etc..) I’ve often wondered how the prosperity in the region’s two dominant cities (Chengdu and Chongqing) would trickle into these other cities as well.

It seems as if most of the young ambitious Chinese people I meet from these cities who now live in Chengdu feel like there is nothing left for them in their hometowns. They also tell me that if they want to move ahead the best opportunities are found in Chengdu or Chongqing.

This isn’t to suggest that Chengdu and Chongqing will continue being the only cities absorbing all the region’s young, educated and ambitious talents. As is clear from what you wrote, the government is pushing for the prosperity to spread throughout the region. And given the enormous combined population of Sichuan Province/Chongqing Municipality at a whopping 110 million people, this is certainly a reasonable plan.

Unfortunately, observations on the ground often tell a different story. About a year and a half ago I was in a city called Jiangyou (famous as the hometown of the poet Li Bai and now actually considered a part of greater Mianyang) to meet with a housing developer for a potential new project. The developer had just finished building a series of faux Italian-style villas on the outskirts of town and reveled in showing us the finished product. No one had moved in yet, but the units were sold out.

Why anyone would buy these villas as anything other than a pure (risky) speculative investment is beyond me. Quality of life couldn’t possibly be a factor. Just outside the gates of the project, the developer drove us around in his brand new Mercedes-Benz to show us what is Jiangyou’s newly planned ‘center’. At this time, it was nothing more than block upon block of empty dirt lots, cleared away for new development. No people in sight except for a few construction workers taking a cigarette break. There were absolutely no amenities in the area and the air full of dust.

The developer then drove us to the real center of Jiangyou about 5km down the road. Finally, signs of life abounded as local residents went about their day in the downtown area. Though the downtown Jiangyou locals didn’t look like they suffered from abject poverty, a brand-new Mercedes with a young laowai passenger inside was enough to stop people in their tracks and turn a lot of heads.

We stepped out of the car and walked through the center of town, which was a series of 1-2 story ramshackle shacks that were destroyed in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. The buildings were too damaged to be safely occupied, yet markets still flourished in the pedestrian street directly in between the collapsed buildings.

The juxtaposition of the physical damage with the bustling life on the street gave the place the feeling of a disaster zone frozen in time. Given the time since the earthquake struck, I wondered why there hadn’t been any progress on clearing out the damage.

I got my answer when the developer took us to Jiangyou’s planning department- a bland, 5-story grey building with peeling paint, typical of government of offices in China’s 3rd and 4th tier towns.  Inside the building, there was not a soul in sight in the poorly lit hallways and stairwell until we got up to an office on the 3rd floor that reeked of stale cigarette smoke. A middle-aged man with a baijiu-belly offered us plastic cups of teas leaves with lukewarm water and introduced himself as one of the officials in charge of urban planning for the city. Maps of the city and region covering the walls of his office confirmed his position.

What we found out in that meeting is that despite an outward appearance that would suggest otherwise, the city of Jiangyou is rich. Or rather, the city government is sitting on top of piles of cash that was given to them by the central government as part of the Wenchuan Earthquake rebuilding effort. At that point, there was not much to show for the money they had received except for plans drawn up on paper. So far, our potential client, the developer of the luxury Italian villas had been one of the few in Jiangyou savvy enough to use his connections with the local government to gain favor and build the project, even though it was clear that the money might’ve been used for other, more pressing matters (e.g. clearing the rubble in downtown).

And while the planning official was soliciting master plans for redevelopment of the downtown area, most of the effort was still on developing the ‘new’ center with plans for new government offices and more luxury residential projects. I found it more than unfortunate that this took precedence over rebuilding the place where most of Jiangyou’s population lives.

Upon leaving Jiangyou, my Chinese colleague said something to me akin to “f*ck that guy”, in reference to the developer who showed us around. Apparently there was more going on than I could gather from my limited understanding of Chinese at the time.  Yet despite these misunderstandings, the physical state of the city said enough about where the rebuilding money was going.

Ultimately, it is the countless smaller cities like Jiangyou that will determine the future success of China (it is also good to keep in mind that city size is relative, and although Jiangyou is ‘small’ by China standards, the population sits at almost 900,000 people). With the upcoming government leadership change and an economy that begs for an evolution in its level of transparency, the fate of the country lies within its urban areas, especially the ones not on the international or even national radar.

An Architect’s Guide to Working in China

A few months ago I read a piece from Bloomberg discussing Frank Gehry’s decision to ‘turn to Asia for architecture projects as U.S. growth slows.’ In terms of big name architects from the U.S. and Europe turning to Asia for work, Gehry is late to the party. Nevertheless, it is a very telling sign that Gehry, someone who in the past could be highly selective of his clients, is looking to Asia to keep his office busy.

In the Bloomberg article, Gehry is candid about his desire to work domestically in the U.S. yet lacking the opportunity due to the depressed economic situation. As if another reminder is needed about the sorry state of the industry, Salon published a piece about the dire outlook for the profession last month titled ‘The Architecture Meltdown‘.

So aside from returning to graduate school, designing furniture or leaving the profession completely, most architects in the U.S. and other Western nations have limited options, therefore turning to emerging markets where there is work happening. China is by far the largest of these emerging markets for new buildings.

As such, over the past year I have received many inquiries asking for advice about doing business in the architecture/construction/real estate industries in China. There is never one ‘magic-bullet’ to successfully pursuing architecture work in China as different types of architects have different specialties and varying range of resources. Most of the very large, international corporate firms already have a foothold into the market, and with their wider resources, many have already established locally staffed offices in Beijing and Shanghai.

One of the greatest misconceptions about doing work in China is that it is one great big tabula rasa for trying out wild new architectural ideas. Surely this is the case for a select few, but if your name is not Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl or Rem Koolhaas, you can forget about China being an ideal playground for realizing this kind of fantasy.

The reality is much more stark and the competition for work increasingly fierce. The competition these days is not only between foreign architects operating in China, but also with domestic Chinese architects who are quickly learning and moving up the value chain in terms of design ability.

With that said, China remains a bright spot in the global economy for urban growth and there is still ample opportunity for the courageous and ambitious. Below is a list of ten recommendations to architects looking to do work in China:

(Special thanks to Matthias Bauer, Studio Leader of Urban Design at Atkins Beijing for his insight and contribution to this list)

1. Make sure that your client is able and willing to pay for your work. Insist on being paid up-front, if possible, and never agree to do any unpaid work.

Too many architects jump into the China market only to quickly find themselves caught up in situations where they are not appropriately compensated for their work. Given the current lack of new work in the developed world, property developers in China know that they have the upper hand when it comes to soliciting services from experienced Western architects and will use this fact to undercut design fees.

 2. Many projects may have, at least initially, more to do with ‘market research’, ‘branding’, ‘image’ or ‘positioning’ and not actual design. Your work, especially at the beginning stages, should reflect this.

In addition, don’t expect your client to explicitly tell you what the design is for. What they might not tell you is that there is already a design from a local ‘design institute’ (LDI) planned for construction, but need you to provide something with more of a ‘wow’ factor to satiate government officials. Another reason might be that a developer is trying to win a land bid and wants to show that they can build something cutting-edge to gain an advantage.

3. The Western idea of progressing projects step-by-step, proceeding from the abstract and general to the detailed solution, is on the whole alien to China. Expect to be asked to do everything at once, right now.

Chinese clients like to feel like they are getting their money’s worth and expect the architect to prove it through volume of work produced. Powerpoint presentations with less than 100 slides are not taken seriously and are merely taken as evidence that you haven’t worked hard enough. Even if your design will never be built, you are nonetheless expected to deliver detailed designs right from the start.

4. Don’t expect the project to proceed at lightning speed. Instead, it will be more of a stop-and-go process, as the client will often need some time for internal discussions or for negotiations with the government, during which the project will grind to a halt, sometimes for months.

Planning bureaucracy exists in China just as it does in the West, just in different form. In the West, the transparent nature of the planning process ensures that stakeholders have a clear idea of the various issues to be worked out. In China, the big decisions happen behind closed doors. So expect to modify, adjust or completely change your design over and over without clear explanations as to the reasons why. Moreover, expect this to happen with very short notice and to short deadlines.

5. Understand that the initial schedule agreed with your client is for guidance only. Any deadlines, meeting times, presentation times, etc. will change often at short notice.

This relates to #3 in that clients expect you to cater to their whims, regardless if you have other things scheduled for your day. There were several instances in one of the firms I worked where clients showed up at the office unannounced expecting to hold impromptu meetings. Be aware that Chinese developers like to keep their architects on their toes.

6. Meetings and presentations to high-level government leaders (such as Mayors or Vice Mayors) or real estate executives never take place at the agreed time.

At the day of the presentation, expect the time to be changed frequently every half an hour or so until the meeting is cancelled altogether and then re-scheduled again for the same day, late at night. Also be prepared to be contacted on Sunday night and asked to give a presentation for a new design option Monday morning.

7. Use flashy 3D renderings and multimedia animations to sell your design. Try to show reasonably detailed master plans, detailed architectural design and detailed landscape design right from the start, as nobody will understand simple massing models or abstract diagrams.

Most of the time, Chinese developers and government officials lack the capacity to understand the artsy and abstract presentation drawings coveted by the architecture community. Rather, drawings should be as easily comprehensible and computer renderings should show substantial Photoshopped entourage complete with crowds of people, detailed landscaping, luxury cars, abundant storefront signage, and even fireworks, hot air balloons and blimps in the sky.

8. Don’t assume that as a Westerner you could somehow override and ignore Chinese planning law, Chinese building regulations or any unwritten Chinese rules and standards, even if they seem entirely unreasonable to you.

Your job as a foreign architect in China is to add prestige to a development and maybe a bit of experienced design insight. Don’t let this give you the impression that you have license to single-handedly change local planning laws.

9. Understand that the Chinese are generally not interested in their own architectural legacy. Trying to preserve existing old buildings will be an arduous and mostly futile undertaking.

Likewise, offering contemporary versions of ancient Chinese courtyard houses and hutongs, as so many newcomers to China attempt to do, will likely not get you anywhere. Western architects are hired to bring their expertise from the West to China, not to reinterpret Chinese history (although I must admit as a designer looking for inspiration, it is always tempting to dig through the treasure trove of Chinese history to arrive at an architectural concept even if there is a high probability that the idea will be rejected).

10. Understand that in China, as presumably in your home country, master planning and architecture serve a professional, hard-nosed and profit-seeking real estate industry. In the end, it always comes down to money.

If you pursue design as a form of self-expression, China is likely to deeply disappoint you. If you look at China as a business opportunity and chance to expand your international design portfolio, venturing into the Middle Kingdom can be an exciting and highly rewarding adventure.