China In Africa: An Interview With Go West Project

African Union Building A local looks up at the new African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The complex was funded entirely by Chinese money. Photo Credit: Go West Proejct

In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. to become Africa’s single largest trading partner. Yet the burgeoning relationship between China and Africa is no ordinary trading arrangement. Rather than colonizing the continent as Western powers did in the past century, China is trading infrastructure development and urbanization expertise for access to Africa’s vast natural resources. This re-balancing of trade has yet to be studied in depth as it is probably too early to tell what the impact of China’s involvement in Africa will have on the broader world’s economy.

What we can observe is the immediate impact China is having on Africa’s urban development. Luckily we have Dutch researchers Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen of the emerging cities think-tank Go West Project to explain to us what is happening on the ground.

I first met Hulshof (a journalist) and Roggeveen (an architect) at the 2011 Chengdu Biennale where they presented their research on China’s developing western metropolises (hence the name of their think-tank). Their research culminated in the book How the City Moved to Mr. Sun – China’s New Megacities (2011), which looks beyond the so-called 1st Tier cities of Beijing and Shanghai to tell the story of urbanization in the country’s heartland.

Now Hulshof and Roggeveen are looking even further, beyond China’s borders, to study what the Chinese urbanization experiment means for Africa’s cities. They were kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for us about their initial research:

Adam Mayer (AM): Please give us a summary about your research in Africa and what interested you about studying China’s impacts on the continent.

Go West Project (GWP): In our book “How the City Moved to Mr Sun” we described the mechanisms behind the emergence of megacities in Central- and West-China. We are currently working on a new study into China’s involvement in African urbanization. Given the growing impact of China in the world, and the strong ties between China and Africa, one could think of the physical impact that China has in Africa.

It seems the Chinese are already exporting parts of their urban model to Africa: new “Special Economic Zones” in Zambia, Nigeria and Ethiopia, Chinese residential models in Angola or Kenya and Chinese roads, airports and railways all over Africa. There’s also a new approach of “soft power” with Chinese-led African newspapers and television stations, Chinese language schools, university grants for African students and professionals, and Chinese medical aid projects in Africa. We think this phenomenon deserves an unprejudiced look as to what this means for the development and the future of African cities.

AM: What are those impacts that China’s economic development has had on Africa? Are there certain regions or countries in Africa that have benefited more from China’s business interest in the continent?

GWP: These impacts are both tangible and non-tangible. On the tangible side, China constructs roads, railroads, ports, airports, but also telecommunications structures, fiber optic networks, dams and even satellites. It builds schools and offices and has even given the African Union their headquarters as a present. On the non-tangible side, there are grants for students, increased influence of the media – CCTV has already 80 journalists in their Nairobi office! – and Confucius institutes. Of course, the countries with resources are very attractive to go to for the Chinese – but not only them Royal Dutch Shell is already for decades involved in Nigeria.

AM: China is trading its development and urbanization know-how to certain countries in Africa in exchange for resources- What are some prominent examples of infrastructure or building projects built by the Chinese in Africa?

GWP: The most symbolic one is the structure of the African Union building: a 200 million dollar gift from China to Africa. The building was designed in China (by the Tongji Architecture Planning and Design Institute), built with Chinese materials, by a team of half Chinese and half local workers. In Nairobi, we came across the Great Wall apartments on Beijing road, a development by a Chinese real estate developer. The most amazing example is of course the new towns of Kilamba Kiaxi in Angola, where CITIC developed and built 750 highrise apartment blocks.

 Kilamba_KiaxiKilamba Kiaxi in Luanda, Angola

WorkersAfrican & Chinese Construction Workers. Photo Credit: Go West Project

AM: One criticism of China’s venture into Africa is their use of imported Chinese labor to construct new cities rather than using local labor which would help job creation in the region. In your research did you find this to be an issue?

GWP: This is only partly true, and differs strongly from country to country and from project to project. More and more, the Chinese are aware of the fact that hiring locals improves the engagement of a project. What you see very often is a construction site (or a factory for that matter) with Chinese site supervisors, and local laborers.

A way to have local people profit more is not to hire Chines companies, but local companies for construction jobs. However, local companies can often not compete with Chinese ones in speed, price and quality.

AM: Based on studying China’s influence in Africa, do you feel that China is setting a new standard for developing county’s around the world that aspire to urbanize and grow their economies?

GWP: Africa’s urbanization is staggering. Africa’s urban population, which was 395 million in 2010, will be no less than 1.2 billion in 2050. That means Africa’s cities will have to accommodate an extra 40,000 people every day for the coming 15 years. If there’s one country in the world that has experience with such an enormous rural to urban transformation, it is China.

However, implementation of Chinese strategies on African soil seems so far hardly possible due to differences in political and economical structures.

Therefore, we think that the impact of Chinese presence in Africa will depend very much on the local conditions, and will strongly differ from country to country and city to city.

Michiel Hulshof is partner at Tertium, an Amsterdam based office for strategic communication. Daan Roggeveen is the founder of MORE Architecture, Shanghai and Curator at the University of Hong Kong/Shanghai Study Centre.

Be on the lookout for further research on this topic as Go West Project is currently preparing a theme issue of the magazine Urban China, with contributions by Brechtje Spreeuwers (NL), Huang Zhengli (CN), Njeri Cerere (KE) and Paulo Moreira (PT).

The State of Seismic Safety in China

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The 7.0-earthquake in Ya’an, Sichuan Province this past April once again brought up the topic of construction quality in China. Images of crumbled buildings also reminded the world of the devastation that overcame the very same region 5 years ago when more than 70,000 people perished in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake.

Amazingly, the loss of life in the Ya’an quake was markedly smaller at only 200 (granted, so was the severity of the quake, but 7.0 is magnitude still a very significant tremor). Ideally, the goal of seismic building safety is to minimize casualties, thus April’s earthquake proved that China is stepping it up in the right direction.

I have a unique perspective on the issue having spent 2 years living and working in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. And given my position working on the inside of China’s construction boom, industry colleagues and acquaintances outside China frequently inquired about the country’s building safety standards.

The reality is that the discussion of building safety in China is complex. Back in architecture school, our structural engineering professor liked to remind us that “earthquakes don’t kill people, structurally deficient buildings do”. This tends to true, both in Sichuan and other seismically active regions around the world. And while China is generally known for questionable regulations and safety standards, Chinese building codes definitely do not allow any sort of leeway with structural safety.

That being said, it is important to note that an architect and structural engineer can design a building to be structurally sound but the final product will only be as good as the quality of construction, which is ultimately the responsibility of the general contractor. Provided the contractor follows architectural and structural drawings as designed, there should be no concern over seismic safety. Yet the process is never that simple.

By Western standards, construction administration in China is a rather opaque process for a designer. Final decisions during construction are made by owner and contractor without much input from the architect. This can cause issues with oversight, especially with the more unscrupulous contractors and owners who “skim off the top” by switching out building materials for inferior product at the last moment and pocket the difference in price.

While this is an unfortunate practice, the consequences are much less severe when applied to finish materials versus structural materials. Virtually all of the buildings that collapsed in both Sichuan earthquakes were a result of unreinforced masonry construction, meaning that builders stacked bricks or concrete blocks without using sufficient (or any) steel reinforcing bar (rebar). Furthermore, most of these buildings were located in rural towns where they were probably built by individuals not formally trained in construction techniques. This isn’t an excuse, but rather a reflection of a country that is still developing.

Further highlighting the urban/rural gap in China is the fact that in both Sichuan earthquakes, Chengdu proper suffered minimal damage comparatively to its surrounding countryside. And with the mad frenzy of construction going on in the city, never once did I see a cause for concern with the structural reliability of city’s new buildings. In fact, the new high-rise buildings rising in Chengdu’s core fared well in April’s earthquake.

So while there is still improvement to be made in construction processes and techniques, especially in the more rural areas of China, my feeling is that safety standards are only getting better. The architecture and engineering professions in China, as well as government authorities, take seismic safety very seriously and do not lack the know-how in designing and building safe buildings.

The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake was a wake up call, but given how far China has come in terms of development, there is a very good chance that this will have been the last catastrophic seismic event in country.

Why is Zaha Hadid Being Copied in China?

Zaha_copied in ChinaZaha Hadid’s Wangjing SOHO design (left). Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century design (right). Image from AFP.

Earlier this year, the architecture world was in shock after a story made the rounds that a Zaha Hadid designed project in Beijing is being pirated by a developer in Chongqing. What’s surprising about this story is not the actual copying of Hadid’s design but the reaction from the design media, as if this is the first incidence of architectural piracy in China.

Of course this is not the case as building designs are routinely copied in China. However, what makes this instance unique is that while Hadid’s design (Wangjing SOHO) is still under construction, the copied version (Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century) is set to complete first. Pan Shiyi, Board Chairman of SOHO China, Hadid’s client, has not kept quiet about his disapproval, and is now taking legal action against the developers in Chongqing.

This situation brings up the reoccurring discussion about authenticity (or lack thereof) in China. It is no secret that China ‘learns by imitation’ in everything from product design to software development. In the realm of architecture, it is not uncommon to come across functioning replicas of famous buildings from history (like the Chrysler Building, Sydney Opera House, or the entire Austrian Village of Hallstatt) in China’s cities.

Hadid’s office speculates that perhaps someone got hold of their plans for Wangjing SOHO to produce the copy. Yet having seen Chinese architects in action, it would not be far-fetched to speculate that the designers of Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century saw nothing more than a computer rendering of Hadid’s project on the internet to generate something of similar likeness.

Architects around the world learn from other architects. Websites like ArchDaily are a great resource for architects to promote their work and for other architects to get inspired. Like professional writers, there is an unspoken ethical code among architects about borrowing from other designers: re-using certain ideas or building elements is ok, even flattering at times, but outright plagiarism is never ok.

This code of design ethics doesn’t exist (yet) in China. As is often the case, copying a famous design from another architect can be a good strategy in getting approval from a Chinese client or local government official. In response to the accusation of copying, developer Chongqing Meiquan even said “never meant to copy, only want to surpass.”

This response is very telling of where the value of architectural design lies today in China. While it could be argued that China is still in its “learning phase” of development, it is starting to become clear that the country’s ambitions lie much further beyond not only being the ‘biggest’ but the ‘best’ – even if that means using dishonorable means to get there.

Interview with Bianca Bosker, Author of New Book “Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China”

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The widespread pirating of architectural motifs in China’s developing urban landscape is a well-documented phenomenon. From Alpine Villages to starchitect-designed superstructures, Chinese builders often seem to have no shame in copy and pasting designs originating from far away places.

This perplexing and culturally intriguing topic is the subject of a new book by Bianca Bosker, Executive Tech Editor for The Huffington Post. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China (University of Hawaii, 2013) examines the trend of “duplitecture” in China – the construction of monumental, themed communities that replicate the cities and towns of the West, frequently drawing on historical European archetypes.

Bianca was nice enough to answer some questions to help give us a better idea of what her book is about:

Adam Mayer (AM): What prompted you to write a book about architectural mimicry in China and how did you become interested in this topic? What message are you trying to convey by writing this book beyond showcasing the fact that China likes to copy buildings?

Bianca Bosker (BB): My interest in this architectural movement started during a research trip to China when I first discovered Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” plan, an urban planning initiative devised by local officials that called for ringing the metropolis with ten satellite communities each built as a full-scale replica of a foreign city and designed to house hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. German architects were commissioned to build the German-themed town; British architects were tapped to design ye olde, English-style “Thames Town,” and so forth for the Italian, Scandinavian, Dutch and other European-style towns. The experience of visiting these communities is, to quote the slogan of one of the residential communities, “Out of expectation with common sense.”

I was intrigued by how at odds these developments were with the futuristic, hyper-modern skyscrapers being built – and touted—in China’s metropolises; how dramatically these communities split with China’s own rich architectural traditions; and the gulf between the excitement among developers, residents and officials for these themescapes on the one hand, and the disdain with which they were regarded by many critics and architects on the other. My quest to understand why these were being built – and what they could tell us about the makeup of the 21st century “Chinese dream” – is what led me to my book.

The goal of Original Copies, which takes readers inside the homes in these communities and into the minds of the officials and architects that built them, is to explain what factors have given rise to China’s en-masse importation of Western landscapes, right down to statues of Winston Churchill and Venice’s Saint Mark’s square, and what it means. The message is also that these buildings speak to an important inflection point in contemporary China from closed-off, top-down society to one where individuals are increasingly able to exercise small levers of power and individual choice. And that this architectural movement, which on the surface appears to many observers a sign of China’s infatuation with the West, are actually are monuments to China’s achievements and progress, not to the West’s.

“The hardware may be all Western,” explained a resident of Shanghai’s Thames Town, “but the software is all Chinese.”

AM: Is it fair to criticize China for being a copycat when the U.S. does the same thing (e.g. Las Vegas) with architectural styles from around the world? Is co-opting European stylistic motifs simply just a universal desire for the aspiring global nouveau riche class?

BB: You’re absolutely right to highlight the U.S.’s own lengthy tradition of copying European architectural prototypes, from Italian palazzos to English Gothic designs. The campuses of Princeton and Yale were knockoffs of Oxford and Cambridge in their own way. And before we try to criticize China for building a “Beverly Hills” development or “Venice Water Town” (in Chongqing and Hangzhou, respectively) we might consider New York state is home to towns like Ithaca, Athens and Troy. (The book, I would also note, isn’t focused on casting a value judgment on China’s copycat architecture, but rather explaining why it exists).

However, there are a few important differences between Las Vegas and the “duplitecture” in China. For one thing, Las Vegas is a tourist destination that offers temporary admission into a fantasy experience, while China’s themed communities are homes. Developments such as Stratford or Rancho Santa Fe are living, breathing neighborhoods where Chinese families raise children and live out their lives. What’s surprising about China’s architectural imitation is also the scrupulousness with which communities have been copied and the foreign origins of the originals, like Versailles and Orange County, that are being imitated. The architectural “copycats” in the United States draw from on the architectural styles of peoples who share the same geocultural genealogy. China is pulling from a geopolitically, temporally, and culturally alien and remote civilization.

Certainly we’ve seen the “aspiring global nouveau riche class” embrace these themed developments in countries from the United Arab Emirates to the United States, and I write in Original Copies that many newly minted middle- and upper-class Chinese have embraced Baroque townhouses or Tudor-style homes as a way of showcasing their success and identify themselves as belonging to a certain class. To many, a French villa is as much a symbol of luxury as the Chanel “C’s” on a designer handbag. But to suggest that these copycat-communities are “just something the nouveau riche does” oversimplifies the situation and misses important nuances that illuminate a uniquely Chinese attitude toward replication and a kind of crisis point in the development of China’s own contemporary architectural styles.

AM: Property developers in China often tell me that traditional Chinese architecture is “too difficult and expensive to build”. In your research did you also find this to be an excuse for not continuing with a Chinese vernacular architectural language? 

BB: Yes, though the excuse I encountered was also that traditional Chinese housing styles didn’t allow for high-density construction. The developers I spoke with argued that the Western townhouses and “villas”, though hardly exemplars of “green” building practices, were more efficient in the sense that they could squeeze more properties on a single lot than if they were building, say, traditional Chinese siheyuan courtyard homes (Anyone who’s visited these developments can tell you that even the ones with enormous McMansions  packed the homes extremely close together).  As I note in my book, according to one Hangzhou architect, the “European style is better equipped to increase land use than traditional Chinese architecture of the past.” However, if there’s demand for that particular style, developers can – and have—found a way to make it work (see below).

AM: What is the future for Chinese architecture? When Chinese middle class reaches a point of stability, having met its most basic needs, will more people desire ‘authenticity’ in their buildings? If so, how do you see this manifesting?

BB: Lots and lots of experimentation, with constant reinvention. As we’ve seen from projects like the “One City, Nine Towns” plan or CCTV Headquarters, China has the luxury of being able to execute bold experiments in architecture and urban planning – sometimes for better, sometimes worse – thanks to the government’s power and pocketbook, as well as the sheer speed of urbanization and construction. And these projects sometimes disappear as quickly as they appeared: Shenyang’s New Amsterdam themescape, an incredible, sprawling landscape with a copy of Amsterdam’s train station and a replica of the Peace Palace in The Hague, was demolished not long after it was built. One Chinese developer’s hypothesis has stuck with me: while the U.S. builds buildings meant to last lifetimes, he argued, China is more likely to see buildings as temporary and disposable, due in part to China’s more conservative land-ownership laws.

I don’t think “authenticity” for Chinese architecture necessarily means building siheyuan courtyard homes or shikumen lanehouses. Still, it’s worth noting that some developers are already building themed communities that embrace traditional Chinese architecture as their template, rather than, say, Palm Beach. Developments like Cathay View in Beijing or Fifth Garden in Hangzhou replicate more indigenous architectural styles – and are just one more way for developers to distinguish their offerings in an increasingly crowded real estate market. These communities aren’t exact replicas of traditional Chinese homes, however, and oftentimes have floor plans very similar to the Western residences, only with more “Chinese” exteriors. I envision China developing its own unique style, though what it will look like exactly remains to be seen. Perhaps in another generation Versailles will seem as much Chinese as French.

Many thanks to Bianca for taking the time to answer our questions. Please check out her new book “Original Copies Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China“, out now, which can be ordered here at Amazon.com

MTR Island Line Extension Set to Change Hong Kong’s Western District

Blue Dot = Current Western Extent of MTR Hong Kong Island Line (Sheung Wan)       Red Dot = Terminus of Island Line Western Extension To Open in 2014 (Kennedy Town)

Infrastructure development continues in Hong Kong as the city’s Metro Transit Railway (MTR) extends its underground Island Line into the city’s Western District. Beginning construction in 2009, the western extension of the Island Line (dubbed the ‘West Island Line’) is set to open in 2014. The Island Line currently ends at Sheung Wan, one stop west of Central (Hong Kong’s central business district), but the extension will add three new stops, including Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong University, and terminating at Kennedy Town.

MTR Station Under Construction On Pok Fu Lam Rd. Across from Hong Kong University

The West Island Line is unique because of uphill/downhill conditions at the Sai Ying Pun and Hong Kong University Stations. At both stations, MTR plans show station exits at various elevations, with high-speed vertical lifts transporting passengers from deep within the subway tunnel up to the Mid-Levels area (see this link for clear sectional diagrams of how this works). The Sai Ying Pun Staiton will have exits at three different elevations: Queen’s Road West, First St./Second St., and Bonham Road.

The extension will also be huge boon for students who commute to HKU. The university’s campus, situated on a steep hill and not easily accessible as a pedestrian, will be served by an exit directly across from the entrance at Pok Fu Lam Road.

The Island Line Western Extension Will Benefit Students Who Commute to HKU

The Belcher’s, a High-Rise Residential Development in the Western District

Because Hong Kong’s Western District is not well served by public transport, rents and property prices have traditionally been lower than other parts of the island with better access to the MTR. Aside from the Belcher’s, a high-rise residential development completed in 2001 that sits atop a shopping mall, the Western District still retains a marked ‘mom and pop’ low-key atmosphere.

It is hard to predict how this will change in 2014 when the West Island Line opens. Property developers  real estate investors have already taken note, but with most of the area already built up with an aging housing stock, there is not much new open space for development.

Whatever future changes come to the neighborhood though, the MTR extension is a positive development for Hong Kong as it continues to serve as  a model of public transportation efficiency for cities around the world.

Kennedy Town. MTR Construction in the Background

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.

On Poor Quality: Corruption and Construction in China

As someone who works in the building industry in China, I am often asked why the quality of construction of most new buildings is so poor. The people who usually ask are expatriates from places like Europe or America; rarely does someone native to China who hasn’t spent time overseas pose the same question.

This perhaps has to do with the fact that building quality in China is relative. Most Chinese first-time home buyers moving into brand new housing tower blocks do not have the frame of reference to evaluate finish material quality. This is exacerbated by the fact most housing developers sell units as empty concrete shells, leaving it up to the owners to fit them out with finishes and fixtures.

This is not to suggest that the thousands of recently built high-rise towers  across Chinese cities are on the verge of collapse. On the contrary, structural engineers in China tend to err on the side of caution when designing structural systems and from what I’ve seen on construction sites, they do not skimp on steel rebar reinforcing (especially here in Chengdu where the destruction from the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake is still very fresh in memory).

The quality disconnect comes at the level of finish materials; both on the building’s exterior and interior. Unfortunately, architects and designers have very little say in the final finish materials used in their projects in China. In the U.S., quality control is managed through the process of construction administration, where there is ongoing communication between the owner, general contractor, and architect during the construction process.

Architects practicing in the U.S. typically create what is known as a specifications (‘spec’) book to go along with a working drawing set, together which serve as instructions for the general contractor on how to construct the building. The level of detail in spec books varies, and final material selection is ultimately up to the general contractor and owner through bidding processes with building material suppliers. Yet architects maintain a say throughout the process through submittals (of material samples and shop drawings to the architect) and change orders. This creates a system of checks and balances between the owner, general contractor, and architect throughout the construction process leading to better quality control.

The process described above is virtually nonexistent for most new projects in China. One reason has to do with the fact that architects in China are still seen as ‘big idea’ guys rather than technical experts. During the construction phase, the representatives from architecture firms who go out to construction sites to check up on work are typically trained engineers, checking mostly for structural integrity. Designers looking for finish quality are usually not welcome.

The second, more widespread reason that construction projects do not follow strict communication protocols between interested parties is due to corruption. Construction projects require huge budgets and bank loans- by cutting corners here and there, developers and contractors can pocket large sums of money. This means skimping on things like wall insulation, substituting quality exterior and interior cladding materials for inferior ones, and even using cheaper plumbing and electrical equipment.

So in a sense, the complexity and lack of communication is by design. This observation is confirmed in a World Bank report about the construction industry in China, with one of the key challenges facing the industry being:

The respective roles of the “employer”, the “engineer”, and the “contractor” need to be defined and separated. Current overlapping in the roles of owner, contractor, and engineer in government hampers the development of competitive bidding and effective contract management. The required separation in roles will require extensive training programmes.

Unfortunately it does not appear that this will change anytime soon. The real estate development business in China is still like the wild west, and developers who have long-term vision are not easy to come by. Most are still looking to make a buck as fast as possible before the frenzy slows down.

By the time this happens, this may be be a good thing for building integrity as upwardly-mobile Chinese families start demanding higher quality out of their living and working spaces.