Tetris and the Challenge of Curbing Chinese Sprawl

Chinese SprawlWhile Chinese cities are growing at an unprecedented pace, much of this growth isn’t what most city planners would consider “smart” — that is, growth that is efficient, equitable, and environmentally sustainable. Instead, most Chinese cities are experiencing high levels of sprawl. This has led both Chinese and international pundits to focus on the issue of Chinese sprawl, with some even asking why Chinese cities haven’t learned lessons from American cities. Is sprawl a sign that Chinese leaders don’t know what they’re doing?

In theory, sprawl can be limited by good planning. In practice, sprawl is an exceedingly challenging phenomenon to stop. Though there are numerous complex reasons for the growth of Chinese sprawl, there are three systemic factors driving Chinese cities’ expansive growth: unprecedented Chinese growth, local government budget dependence on land sales, and the importance of GDP growth in the Chinese political promotion system.

Unprecedented Chinese Growth

In a way, building cities is a lot like playing a game of Tetris — waves of incoming population and development fall like Tetris blocks. In theory, a player wants to pack in the shapes as tightly as possible, limiting gaps and completing as many full lines as possible. And that’s the strategy most players use at the beginning of a Tetris game when the pace is slow.

As the pace of the game increases, perfectly combining these blocks becomes a lot harder. The need to place blocks smartly is superseded by the need to respond quickly; players begin to haphazardly drop blocks to avoid disaster and keep playing as the pace of the game increases.

If you watch someone playing Tetris and they’re almost out of room to stack new blocks, it doesn’t necessarily mean the player didn’t have a strategy; it just means that they didn’t have time to respond, or didn’t correctly anticipate which pieces would actually appear.

City planners in major Chinese cities are playing a high-speed game of planning Tetris. They’re trying to place the metaphorical pieces as quickly and logically as possible. Like a Tetris player, they don’t always know which pieces will come next.

In a vacuum, some moves may look peculiar, but Chinese planners and local officials are often doing their best to keep “the game” going. In a game of Tetris, this means stacking blocks higher and less efficiently than you’d like; in Chinese cities, this means pushing development further away from the center of the city.

As of now, there isn’t an equivalent to a maximum number of rows in Tetris, so it makes sense to keep building Chinese cities outward. In this way, Chinese sprawl isn’t “dumb” growth; it is perhaps just “as smart as growth conditions will allow.”

Chinese Cities Depend on Growth

Cities throughout the world derive financial benefits from growth; however, tax structures benefit each place in different ways. One underrated but exceedingly important factor in the growth in Chinese cities is their land tax structure.

In many places (including the United States), cities have financial incentives for smart, compact development, particularly for property taxes. The higher quality of development, the higher the assessed value of the land that it sits on, and the higher level of property tax that a municipality collects from the property owner. These taxes are collected on an ongoing basis, giving municipalities strong incentives to provide quality services to these areas to keep them from losing value (and thus decreasing property tax collections).

Unlike places like the U.S., the Chinese government owns all land within its borders; to raise money, local Chinese governments divide up parcels of land and sell development rights to developers and investors. There is no post-development property tax. Therefore, Chinese cities receive a majority of their financial gain from growth at the beginning of the development process.

The money received from selling these development rights often make up close to 30% of a city’s income, so city officials face a tough decision: do they encourage smart, compact growth that limits the amount of land they sell, or do they chase short-term cash infusions by selling development rights to land further from the city center? Even if you’re a huge proponent of environmental protection, it is easy to understand why this is a hard choice for local officials.

The Chinese land tax structure also creates perverse incentives to investors to build in unnecessary places. In places with high property taxes, investors are discouraged from holding property for a long time, as they are required to continually pay taxes on this property. Over numerous years, tax payments add up and cut into overall profit when these developments are sold. In China, however, investors (particularly those with low financing costs) can sit back and (theoretically) wait for demand to pick back up again. While investors wait, buildings with unsold space sit empty; some pundits have speculated that this has fueled the growth of Chinese ghost cities.

Politics

The structure of the Chinese political system also encourages unchecked growth that results in sprawl. This is because the Chinese political system works a lot like the farm system in Major League Baseball, with most officials beginning at lower levels (county & city) and moving to higher levels (provincial and central). Officials with strong track records (and strong guanxi) have the best chance to rise within the party to higher levels of government with greater amounts of power.

Though there are numerous ways to measure success for Chinese officials, traditionally the most important has been economic growth. Infrastructure investment and real estate development are major components of local GDP growth. Furthermore, spending on environmental improvements over transportation infrastructure has been found to have negative effects on promotion odds.

Encouraging smart, compact growth becomes a risky decision. If smart growth policies slow cities’ growth, they not only endanger municipal budgets but also jeopardize political careers. In this light, Chinese sprawl isn’t the result of incompetent technocrats who don’t know what they’re doing; instead, it’s the result of Chinese politicians recognizing the importance of this growth in progressing their political career.

There is reason for hope. Since coming into power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pushed for reform in the Chinese political promotion system. Major news organizations like Bloomberg are reporting that “going green” is now as important of a metric as GDP growth for rising party officials. It’s still too early, however, to tell whether these reforms will have a meaningful effect on the Chinese political system.

So why are Chinese cities sprawling? It is not because local, provincial, and national officials don’t recognize that current growth patterns aren’t environmentally or financially sustainable. Instead, the financial and political incentives built into the Chinese system favor fast, “dumb” growth rather than slower, “smart” growth. The challenge of accommodating a large inflow of rural migrants is exacerbating these pressures.

Local government officials didn’t write the unofficial rules that dictate city growth. Sprawl isn’t necessarily a sign that they don’t know what they’re doing; rather, it’s potentially a sign that the “rules of the game” push them towards unsustainable policies. Chinese sprawl is not inevitable; rather, to push Chinese development towards a more sustainable path, officials at all levels of government will have to consider how they can reform the “rules of the game” to encourage smart, sustainable growth.

5 Questions for Shaun Rein, Author of “The End of Copycat China”

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More can happen in two years in a developing country like China than can happen in a decade or more in developed countries. And given this high speed of change, the information in business books about China’s economy can go out of date really fast.

That is why it is not surprising that although it has only been a little over two years since China analyst Shaun Rein released his first book, The End of Cheap China, he is back with another one. In that time span, China got a new leader in Xi Jinping, the one-child policy was significantly reformed, and Alibaba, the country’s biggest internet company, went public on the New York Stock Exchange.

The End of Copycat China is a natural follow up to End of Cheap China (which we featured a review of on this blog not long ago) and looks to build upon the research he’s been doing for the past decade on the ground in China.

I recently had a chance to chat with Rein about his new book and ask some questions about what he’s seen change in the past two years and, more importantly, the trends he sees influencing China’s development in the near future.

Adam Mayer (AM): Your previous book The End of Cheap China asserted that China is moving up the value chain from a land of cheap manufacturing to higher-end manufacturing and services. Since then, how have your initial observations been validated? Where is China today versus when you were doing research for your first book?

Shaun Rein (SR): When End of Cheap China first was released, many critics pounced on me and said that China would always be a low-cost manufacturing center. Over the last three years, however, my thesis has been proven right as labor and rents have gone up in double digits year on year in the manufacturing sector — China no longer is a cheap place to produce products. Companies like Nike have started sourcing more from even cheaper markets like Vietnam and Chinese footwear manufacturers like Huajian have opened factories in Africa.  When even the Chinese relocate to Africa in search of lower costs, that is when you know there is a tectonic shift in supply chains needed.

I also argued in End of Cheap China that China would not lose its manufacturing dominance because it has superior infrastructure and the necessary eco-system for manufacturing — I said that Chinese firms would move up the value chain which they have done. What might surprise people is just how fast many companies moved up the value chain. They are no longer transferring technology from western nations like Germany and the U.S. but actually focused on innovation which is where my new book begins.

AM: The title of your new book The End of Copycat China also suggests the ‘end’ of something China is known for (intellectual property transfer in this case) as a signal for its next phase of development. Is the perception of China as a land of copycats still a reality?

SR: Chinese firms were copycats for the most part of the last thirty years. The main reason was that there was so much low-hanging fruit to simply transfer technology from the West directly into China and to customize if needed for local markets. It was easy for well-connected (and corrupt) people to get land on the cheap and put up skyscrapers or secure long-term monopolies supplying various government agencies. But now that costs are so high and the public equity markets are giving high valuations to innovative Chinese firms like Alibaba and Tencent, Chinese companies are focusing on innovation more and more — it would be a mistake to discount their ability to innovate. This is a natural progression to what happening in South Korea and Japan.

Yesterday I was at Lotte World Amusement Park in Seoul. From the term ‘cast members’ to Indiana Jones look-alikes, even Lotte is seemingly knocking off Disney and the George Lucas/ Stephen Spielberg franchise.

Intellectual property was and remains a concern so it did not make sense for companies to invest millions of dollars in innovation because someone would likely steal it. When I interviewed top entrepreneurs in the book — and I interviewed the founders of JD.com, Qunar, Tudou for instance as well as the former CEO of Alibaba.com and an angel investor in Xiaomi — property rights and lack of enforced was an issue many brought up towards a barrier for innovation in China.  That said, the situation is getting better as the government is more likely to move to protect the interests of domestic Chinese firms hurt by copyright infringement than western players.

AM: Is there now a broad consensus among policymakers and business leaders in China that the country must innovate in order to continue on its path of economic reform? What are some examples of businesses or policies you’ve come across in your research that align with this goal?

SR: The Chinese government has definitely set the goal of innovative businesses taking up a larger part of the economy. Local governments are setting up innovation parks, like they did with the IT parks a business generation ago. Frankly, I am not sure that these initiatives will work as great innovation tends to occur in the private sector, often in small teams of entrepreneurs who think they can change the world. Chinese bureaucrats despite good intentions often do not understand and thus do not support new technologies which can hamper innovation.

That said, one sector that the government actively supports for innovation and which is seeing great growth is the bio-tech sector. Probably more than any sector I interviewed, except maybe mobile, biotech entrepreneurs were the most optimistic in China precisely because of the support the Chinese government is giving the sector from funding, equipment and opportunity to cooperate with academic institutions. Many said that the climate is better in China than in the US because of Obama administration funding cutbacks.

AM: Apple famously touts its products as “Designed in California, Assembled in China”.  This statement implies superior innovation power over Chinese counterparts. Yet with domestic Chinese businesses such as Tencent and Alibaba becoming more confident as innovators in their own right, what are the implications for Western businesses who have always felt safe in their role as the ‘innovators’ while using China as a factory?

SR: For years the ‘Made in China’ label had negative connotations as being cheap, dangerous. For much of the market that is true but can no longer work going forward. The first half of my book is focused on innovation — the second half is looking at consumer trends and how Chinese are moving away from copycatting the western dream of beauty and life as they define the new Chinese dream.

Importantly, there is a new found pride in Chinese-ness. Top Chinese firms like Xiaomi and Tencent are not hiding their Chinese heritage — Chinese consumers love it, support that move. For western companies, they need to understand that top Chinese firms are going to become global players competing on innovation and no longer the cheap but good enough positioning many Chinese companies competed with before.

AM: Your last book devoted an entire chapter to the real estate industry in China. To what extent does your new book discuss this topic and what are the implications for real estate as China’s economy shifts from one of manufacturing to services?

SR: Real estate plays a key theme in my book — including the high rents that are forcing retailers to think about e-commerce. The real estate sector in China obviously has some issues but they are not as serious as many analysts seem to fret. Prices might soften in the residential sector but there is little leverage in the marketplace. I am more concerned about some of the commercial developments that have gone up in the past few years because developers put too many Louis Vuitton stores as the anchors. The market can only sustain so many LV stores, especially with the anti-corruption crackdown.

But real estate is actually pushing forward a lot of innovation. I had an interview set up with Zhang Xin the CEO of Soho but it got cancelled last minute so I wasn’t able to include anything on Soho in the new book. But pollution has become such a problem in China that it is developers like Soho that are investing in the newest forms of technology for cleaning air, reducing carbon footprints. Chinese real estate developers are really at the clean technology forefront.

Thanks to Shaun Rein for taking the time to answer some questions for us. Please be sure to check out his new book The End of Copycat China.

Hong Kong Protests & The Role of the City

View over Victoria Harbor towards Central- the center of the pro-democracy protests

Hong Kong is an unlikely setting for massive political protests. The city, known for its open global trading culture, is a paragon of economic freedom. Yet many would argue that the economic freedom enjoyed by Hong Kong’s citizens has not kept pace with the level of political freedom.

Case in point: at the time of this writing, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have taken over the city; spilling over from the city’s central business district of Central into the neighborhoods of Causeway Bay and to Mong Kok across the harbor in Kowloon. Prompting this unprecedented massive protest was the Chinese Central Government’s decision last month to allow only committee-approved candidates to run for Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s highest political office) in what was supposed to be the city’s first public vote in 2017.

Beijing’s decision to vet Chief Executive candidates before they are permitted to run for office sent a signal to Hong Kong citizens that perhaps the Central Government is not fully comfortable embracing the idea of ‘One Country, Two Systems‘. That being said, while on the surface this appears to be primarily a political protest, underlying much of the frustration of protestors are economic issues resulting from a flood of Mainland wealth entering Hong Kong.

To understand why this may be the case, it is important to look at Hong Kong as a ‘city’ first rather than a former British Colony and current Special Administrative Region of China.

As anyone who has visited the city knows, Hong Kong is one of the most compelling urban places in the world. Spanning across Victoria Harbor, from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula and beyond to the New Territories, the city’s natural geographical setting is stunning. Add to that the forest of svelte skyscrapers against a backdrop of steep mountains and you get a visual dynamism that is unmatched by any other city.

Urbanistically, Hong Kong functions like a well-oiled machine. The always on-time metro system spans to the far reaches of the city and mixed-use developments everywhere promote lively street-level activity. The city’s airport is one of the most well-connected and efficient in the world. The tourism/hospitality industry is gold standard and booming.

Given all the assets possessed by the city, what then is Hong Kong’s problem?

Short answer: the cost of living is out of control.

In a sense, Hong Kong is a victim of its own success. Thanks to its open banking system, global capital flows into the city relentlessly. Investment in Hong Kong property, primarily from wealthy buyers from Mainland China, drives up the price of real estate to astronomical levels out of reach for most locals.

Exacerbating the housing affordability crisis in Hong Kong is the lack of land to build new real estate to meet the high demand. Demographer Wendell Cox’s research has even found Hong Kong to be the world’s most unaffordable housing market.

The protests in Hong Kong are directed at the Chinese Central Government, but they might as well be directed at China’s capital flows into the city. To put it into perspective, this is a semi-autonomous highly developed city of 7 million, adjacent to a developing country of 1.3 billion. Hong Kong is the closest safe harbor for wealthy Mainlanders to put their money. On top of that, millions of Chinese tourists come to Hong Kong each year to go on shopping sprees, buying luxury goods, sales-tax free, that would be more expensive to purchase in the Mainland.

Given the severity of the situation, it is no wonder that native Hong Kong citizens are taking to the streets in protest. Yet as Hong Kong is already a relatively free city, unfortunately I do not think that more ‘democracy’ will help the solve the problems that Hong Kong protestors are most concerned about (cost of living, loss of cultural identity, etc…).

On the contrary, the solution for the city’s woes would be for the rest of China to become more like Hong Kong. That is- more global, economically open and possessing a banking system that investors can trust. Mainland China is not there yet, but proposed initiatives such as merging the Pearl River Delta into an interconnected ‘mega-region’ and the Shangahi Free-Trade Zone are steps in the right direction.

Ultimately the point is to take the pressure off Hong Kong. This could be achieved by making other cities in China, such as Shenzhen or Shanghai, more open economically, so that capital flows more freely through the Mainland.

The Chinese government up until now has hesitated in doing this. Perhaps the protests in Hong Kong will be a wake-up call to speed up reform. My feeling is that this will happen eventually and hopefully sooner than later.

China Regional Urbanization Trends: 2014 Edition

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) shared with us their new study on “China’s Urban Dreams 2014″ – an update on the country’s urbanization program. With all the uncertainty about China’s property sector in the news recently, this in depth analysis gives some clarity to the often murky topic of Chinese development.

While Western media tends to paint China with one large brushstroke when discussing the country’s property sector, the reality is that real estate markets vary greatly from region to region. China, like the U.S., is a large, diverse country with many different cities and regions with varying strengths and weaknesses. If there is one takeaway from the EIU study, it’s that not all regions are created equally, and going forward, there are bound to be winners and losers.

Before we delve into the details of regional urbanization trends, let’s take a look at where China as a nation stands today. The country’s urbanization ratio is right around 50%, pretty much on target with the Chinese government’s projections. China’s per capita GDP is still relatively low- above India and Nigeria but below Brazil, Russia, and South Africa. Of course, China’s enormous population is a contributing factor to this being the case.

By 2020, the Chinese Government wants to bump up urbanization to 60%.  This will require another 100 million people in cities. It is important to keep in mind though, that this will not only be a result of migrants explicitly “moving” to the city, but urban boundaries continuing to expand into the surrounding countryside. As cities grow in China they annex the land around them, transforming once rural land into urban real estate.

Another key factor in meeting urbanization targets is household registration (hukou) reform, which would help afford migrants a form of permanent residence status in a given city.

Where will these 100 million new urban residents live in 2020 and beyond? According to the EIU study, Guangdong Province will pick up the lion’s share of new urban development. This is not surprising given that the Pearl River Delta region is already the most urbanized in the entire world and is further developing in a manner to help better integrate the region as a whole.

Central province Henan is also urbanizing rapidly, as is the Beijing-adjacent province of Hebei. Yet both of these provinces won’t reach the urban populations projected for coastal provinces Shandong and Jiangsu.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is projected that the direct-controlled municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin will have the highest rates of urbanization by 2030. The Central Government has made it a priority to integrate Beijing, Tianjin and the adjacent province of Hebei into one large mega-region of 100 million people called “Jing-Jin-Ji“. The aim here is to take pressure off of Beijing, which suffers from traffic gridlock, pollution and astronomical housing prices.

Along with the announcement of the formation of the Jing-Jin-Ji mega-region was a move by Hebei Provincial officials announcing that some of Beijing’s Central Government functions will move to the city of Baoding, 150 km southeast Beijing. Although specifics have yet to be articulated, this is a clear indication that the China plans to decentralize its government functions.

WEB - Victoria Lai - Access China - Demographics.inddOverall it looks as if the coastal areas of China will continue to urbanize at high rates while inland regions lag a bit behind. Although there is a wave of manufacturing moving from coastal areas to inland provinces, there still appears to be a logistical advantage being on the coast. To see where China is heading, perhaps it is best to look at the Pearl River Delta, which has led the way since initial economic reform and continues to lead the way today.

Vanke Jiugong Mixed-Use Development by SPARK Architects

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SPARK Architects have shared with us their award-winning design for a new mixed-use development in Beijing. Designed for Vanke in the city’s growing southern suburbs, the project is a mix of retail, leisure, entertainment and office programs.

Currently under construction, Vanke Jiugong is a continuation of SPARK’s investigations into the breaking up of the architectural mass of the shopping mall, and the forging of connections between ‘interiorized’ space and the city. The 127,000 sqm development will incorporate a mall, a cinema, three live-work towers, and a separate retail pavilion, with a pedestrian bridge connection to an adjacent train station.

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While shopping malls traditionally turn their backs on the city, in the context of China, where there is very little urban public space, SPARK director Jan Felix Clostermann says of their design approach, “we typically try to extend the city into the building.”

The scheme proposes a perforated and penetrable building mass of interlocking components of various scales. A base retail block (with traditional curvilinear ‘race-track’ circulation) is prised open with glazing and voids at its periphery and pierced internally by two large conical voids, which draw daylight downward into the center of the building mass and forge visual connections between levels. A sleek white palette contributes to a seamless and flowing retail environment.

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On levels four and five, these volumes terminate with a second ‘ground plane’ – a village of restaurants in an orthogonally planned zone expressed with an alternate material treatment of timber and traditional terazzo tiles. Above is a third ‘ground plane’ – an environment akin to a miniaturized business park, where small office pavilions and larger live-work towers rise from a roof garden. “Level six will be a bit like a hutong in the sky,” says Clostermann, with the fragmented open areas of the garden taking a character similar to courtyards and available for the enjoyment of office users and the wider public.

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The cinema, positioned at one end of level six, will be connected to an external 24-hour circulation route that traverses the façade to allow direct access to and from the entertainment zone after shopping hours. While preventing the disconcerting experience of circulating through a ‘dead’ mall after hours, the external circulatory route will also enliven the exterior of the building, bringing vitality to its principal street façade.

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Thanks to SPARK Architects for sharing their design for the Vanke Jiugong Mixed-Use development. To learn more about the firm and their other exciting work in China, check out their website: http://www.sparkarchitects.com

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).

Chinese Developers on the Defensive After Accusations of Tax Evasion

Beijing Residential Tower

As China’s state media increases its accusations of tax evasion, real estate developers are going on the defensive.

Last week, property tycoon Ren Zhiqian, Chairman of Beijing-based developer Hua Yuan Real Estate Group, posted  a message on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) calling China state broadcaster CCTV “the dumbest pig on earth“.  This was in response to a program recently aired by CCTV accusing Vanke, another very large property developer, of owing more than 4.4 billion yuan (~$727 million USD) in unpaid taxes. The unpaid tax in question is the ‘land appreciation tax’ (LAT).

As a tax levied on the gains from the transfer of land development rights of state-owned land to real estate developers, the idea of the LAT is simple enough in theory but more complicated in practice. As explained in this South China Morning Post article from November:

“Land appreciation tax is collected by local governments, who have much leeway on deciding the actual tax rate. When a developer gets a pre-sale licence, it needs to pay a certain amount of land appreciation tax based on the asking price of the project. When the project is sold out, the exact amount of the tax will be calculated, deducting the cost of land, construction, marketing and other expenditures from the sales revenues, and multiplying the result by progressive tax rates.”

What this essentially means is that as a property developer increases the value of land through improvements and subsequent sales of housing units or leasing of commercial space, they need to pay a percentage of their gains to the local government. This is money due on top of what they already pay to the local government to bid on the land-development rights. The amount of money earned by local municipal governments in China on land sales is huge, accounting for about 30% of revenues.

Needless to say, as China has been going through its decades-long urbanization boom, local governments have not had to worry about a steady stream of money coming in from land sales.

Yet now China is at a tipping point.

With half the country urbanized, local governments are going to have learn to wean themselves off the land sales teat. There is also growing concern that local governments will not be able to pay back debts from loans taken out from state-owned banks used to fund the building of infrastructure.

Given this reality, it makes sense that the issue of land appreciation taxes is just coming to light. Don’t be fooled though- the accusations by CCTV are very calculated and a poorly veiled threat by the Central Government directed at country’s big real estate developers to “pay up”. It also creates a false narrative using developers as a straw-man to direct negative public sentiment towards.

No wonder Ren Zhiqian is livid.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially since for at least the past 10 years developers have been the go-to guys for local governments in meeting their GDP targets (set by the Central Government ironically enough). As urbanization inevitably slows, tax laws will have to be reformed (and enforced).

Unfortunately, there is perhaps no easy way to make this transition. Clearly broadcasting exposés on state-run media against the country’s developers is only adding fuel to a potentially bigger fire.

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”

BBoskerBook

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

Illuminating Hong Kong’s Bank of China Tower

BankOfChina_LightingHong Kong’s Bank of China building with its original nighttime lighting scheme (left) compared to its current one (right)

The following post was written by John Yuan, a Chinese-American architect who worked on the design of the Bank of China building in Hong Kong during his tenure as an employee of I.M. Pei’s architectural practice:

Since first returning to visit Hong Kong around the time of the handover to China in 1997, I noticed that Bank of China Tower appeared strikingly different at night during subsequent visits over the next decade. I never imagined that the exterior lighting scheme for the tower would ever be altered from the original design done by Fisher Marantz, the lighting consultant to I.M. Pei’s office on the project.

Even from the beginning of the design process, illuminating the tower at night posed great challenges. The tower stands over 300 meters tall and has an exterior covered mostly in reflective glass- characteristics which both posed difficulties for the nighttime lighting design.

By carefully aiming spotlights from the ground up at the tower, Marantz managed to evenly illuminate the soaring tower from top to bottom. The vast area of the dark window panes, sprinkled with lights from the interior spaces and bounded by the illuminated aluminum panels at the corners, created a compelling image. The tower seemed almost transparent outlined by the illuminated borders– a proud structural skeleton standing in the Hong Kong skyline.

I first grasped the death of the original exterior lighting design during a visit in 2006. Arriving in the evening and riding in a cab on my way to a Mid-Levels hotel, I passed by the tower but I couldn’t see it, except for its pencil-thin but brightly lit outline. Strips of LED had been inserted into the originally unlit feature line dark grey aluminum panels. The LED, set at such high intensity, rendered the interior office lighting feeble by comparison.

In my very last visit, the tower illumination further deteriorated from what Bank of China, a Class A office tower, deserves. The LED remain but are now programmed to light up in sequence as if the building is being sketched out in the night sky. The tower might as well be an animated pillar in an amusement park.

Despite the changing illumination schemes, the nighttime view of Bank of China never conveyed what the tower does during the day. Pei referred to the structural cross bracing as ‘diamonds’ (after the client reacted negatively to the ‘X’ shape of the bracing), but the real diamond quality actually comes from the refraction of natural light on the tower’s geometrically accentuated massing during the day.

Lighting the tower at night, even with the original illumination scheme, did not do justice to the unique form of the building. The outlined LED lighting exacerbated the problem further by making the well proportioned edge panels disappear. Unfortunately, the result is a tower lacking presence with the building volume flattened into the night.

Urban Fantasies in China: Architectural Visualization

The following piece appears in the new issue of the architecture journal CLOG:RENDERING

Urban Fantasies in China: Architectural Visualization

Architectural visualization specialists are the overlooked laborers involved in the vast China urban development program. They differ from architects in that they do not have design training beyond very specific knowledge of software programs such as 3D Studio Max© or the Adobe Creative Suite©. While some Chinese architecture firms employ in-house visualization specialists, most rendering work is outsourced to gigantic three-dimensional modeling studios.

Stepping into one of these studios is much like walking into a factory (one office can employ upwards of one thousand people), but instead of workers assembling widgets along conveyer belts, rows of workers hunch over their desktop computers for hours on end, producing images to be used in presentations to high-level officials or real estate marketing brochures. Just as in a factory, workers are assigned to one specific task: three-dimensional modeling, rendering (material and camera view selection) or post-production work in Adobe© Photoshop© – there is no overlap in roles.

Workers in these ‘image factories’ can barely keep up with the lighting-fast pace at which buildings go up in China and this explains much of why renderings take on a different role in China as compared to in many Western countries . Unlike the built reality of China’s growing cities, renderings serve as fantasies of urbanization rather than true reflections of the urban condition. Whereas in the West architectural renderings for proposed projects are most often shown in the true photorealistic context of their surroundings, Chinese renderings invent their own context.

One example of this is the rending of a skyline. It is not uncommon to see the skyline of an American city like Los Angeles or Houston, collaged into the background of renderings for new projects in far-flung third and fourth tier provincial cities. In essence, true representation of context is not important when it comes to image making for these Chinese renderings. What matters is the appearance of urbanism: a fantasy which means dense clusters of tall buildings, even if those buildings come from somewhere else.

The theatrics do not stop with city skylines. Renderings for new commercial projects in China must give the appearance of affluence, even if the targeted demographic is not. Storefront signage must display luxury brand names like Gucci, even if those spaces will eventually be filled with dumpling restaurants. Photoshopped entourage must be abundant, even if it distracts from the architectural design. Palm trees and other non-native plant species are perfectly okay in renderings for projects in freezing northern Chinese cities and daytime skies are blue even if in reality pollution clouds the sky.

Architectural visualization specialists (and some architects for that matter) in China are not involved in design, but the marketing of urban fantasies to government officials.  Classic architectural principles like proportion, scale and how a building responds to context are forgotten matters in the race to build the future in China. The truth is there is no time to be so thoughtful.

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

Shenzhen Surging: Yabao Hi-Tech Park by 10 Design

Shenzhen, China’s experimental Special Economic Zone, is often derided for its lack of history and culture. This is in no small part due to the fact that the city is essentially a boomtown that is more or less just over 30 years old. Yet making up for this drawback is the fact that the city has some of the most interesting and innovative new architecture being built in the country.

I was recently informed of a design for a compelling new project that fits the bill for Shenzhen’s growing stock of interesting buildings. The Yabao Hi-Tech Park is a new development by the Shenzhen-based Galaxy Group and designed by the architecture firm 10 Design.

10 Design is relatively new firm based in Hong Kong, started by former employees of the global corporate giant RMJM. Founded less than 2 years ago, 10 Design is an upstart successfully challenging other multinational firms for commissions in the Mainland China market. With the Yabao Hi-Tech Park, 10 Design looks to establish itself as a serious player in the global architecture sphere.

In the designer’s words, the project “is an examination of the relationship between a pristine rural landscape and the advancing forces of a rapidly growing city.” Just over a million square meters in gross floor area, the park features 18 high-rise towers ranging from 100 – 300 meters tall, a 5-star hotel, and 3 residential towers.

The main building, a 300 meter tower flows out of an adjacent stream, twisting up  towards the sky. The 220 meter tower to the right of the main building melds with the retail podium and pulls itself along the freeway edge, creating a bold and iconic public image for the development.

The towers reflect the forward-looking nature of the developer by utilizing high-tech facade systems, including a series of balconies that pull off from the facades to allow vegetation to grow up the sides of the buildings. Interesting enough, included in the vegetated facades is an algae system that neutralizes air pollution 24 hours a day.

The project will be realized soon, as construction broke ground in October of last year. Upon completion, Yabao Hi-Tech Park will be an interesting new addition to the urban fabric of Shenzhen and will solidify 10 Design as a competitive international architecture firm.

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.