“China Is One Of The Most Exciting Places To Be An Architect Right Now”

John Puttick Has Headed Make Architects Beijing Studio Since 2008

Weihai Pavilion by Make Architects

Founded by Ken Shuttleworth in 2004, Britain’s Make Architects has swiftly established itself as one of the UK’s leading architectural firms, working out of a global network of studios in London, Birmingham, Beijing and Hong Kong as well as registered offices in the Middle East. Engaging in a wide range of projects around the world, Make Architects designs everything from large-scale urban masterplans to private luxury residences.

Joining Make in 2004 and relocating in China in 2008 to lead the firm’s Beijing studio, architect John Puttick — whose résumé includes the Hammersmith Embankment mixed-use development on London’s South Bank and the renovation of 55 Baker Street — has set to work heading an impressive set of projects. Puttick’s recent work has included a number of shortlisted competition bids, including a scheme to redesign Shenzhen’s city center, a 500,000 square meter mixed-use building in Beijing and a redesign of the facade of Esprit’s Hong Kong flagship. Current projects in the works include three developments now under construction: a 21-story residential tower in Hong Kong and a boutique hotel and two office towers in Chengdu.

Coming off the completion of their first project in China, the Weihai Pavilion on the northern coast of China’s Shandong peninsula, Make Architects — like a number of international firms — is focusing more intently on China’s less developed interior. Recently, Jing Daily exchanged a Q&A with John Puttick, covering his firm’s plans for expanding in second-tier Chinese cities, the current state of the architecture scene in China, the country’s greater consciousness of sustainable construction, and the potential of local architects.

Jing Daily (JD): How do you think architecture and innovative design contribute to the growth and development of China’s second-tier cities? 

John Puttick (JP): As China continues to grow, the focus has moved from the “first-tier” cities such as Beijing and Shanghai to the cities that are the main growth engines of the Chinese economy. There is no formal definition of second-tier cities, but it is commonly accepted that these are usually the provincial capitals and special administrative cities that are rapidly growing now, as a result of investment from international businesses and new infrastructure.

Elephant & Castle

We believe that architecture and design can really help accelerate the growth and development of these cities, because they generate public interest and attract investment. This is especially so for large-scale landmark buildings, which help shape the overall landscape and character of a city. Beijing would be a lot poorer without the Forbidden City, and similarly with the Beijing Olympic buildings that are now recognized worldwide.

At the same time, we design and build to improve the quality of life of the local community, whether it is in designing greener, more efficient public spaces or more attractive commercial properties to house thriving businesses. This is ultimately what cities are aiming to balance as they also grow and develop economically.

The projects we have been working on in in China this year have been built to encourage growth and development. Our first complete building, the Weihai Pavilion, is situated on a piece of reclaimed land off the northern coast of the Shandong Peninsula, and features a 5,380 square feet exhibition space for a new high-end residential development planned for the island.

In Chengdu, one of China’s second tier cities, we are building an international Grade A office tower called Pinnacle One. The building will eventually be a part of a mixed-use development with retail and office space that will form a new financial and business district for the city.

JD: Do you feel that China at large is becoming more design-conscious? What do you think that says about China’s development?

Aura SOHO, a mixed-use development design for which Make was shortlisted in 2009

JP: Since we opened in Beijing, we have worked with a number of progressive clients that value innovation and creativity, and like to push the envelope. We see a great level of awareness and enthusiasm for design and architecture, and of building sustainably. This is why I believe China is one of the most exciting places to be an architect right now. The many new innovative buildings that are being built by both local and international architects are evidence of this change.

There is a lot of emerging talent in China where local design architects are keen and able to push creative boundaries. Talented local architects are also returning to China after gaining experience overseas. The international community is recognising the change as well. For example, when the Pritzker Prize was awarded to Wang Shu this year, a first for a Chinese architect.

JD: Many retailers and hoteliers are feeling the pressure of an increasingly competitive market in first-tier cities and are seeking lower-tier expansion. Do you feel the same competitive pressure as an architectural firm?

JP: The market in China is becoming more competitive as a whole, but it is also becoming more sophisticated. This is being felt most acutely in the first-tier cities. The market is changing, and we increasingly see that clients in China are paying more attention to key aspects such as the design of a building and how sustainably it is built and operated. Architecture has become valuable in the eyes of clients, as it can help differentiate a property and business.

JD: How do you think your stated emphasis on sustainable design benefits surrounding communities? Does this ethos set Make Architects apart from its competitors?

55 Baker Street by Make Architects, London (Image: e-architects)

JP: What sets Make apart from our competitors is that we are a 100 percent employee-owned company, which means that all of us are partners. Our unique company structure plays a big role in encouraging the kind of exciting and open work environment that helps us attract and keep the very best architectural talent. This philosophy is very much ingrained to our design process and approach. We have a dynamic office environment where everyone can contribute ideas.

With each of our projects, design innovation and sustainability are priorities. We aim to positively enhance the lives of people using the buildings we design, and benefit the surrounding local communities. We consider the environmental side of a building from the very outset of the design process – often simple moves at the beginning contribute much to reducing the energy used by a building without the need for complex technology.

In the UK, we refurbished a building from the 1950s, which is now known as 55 Baker Street. Our focus is always on designing for the local community, and in the UK, a great example is 55 Baker Street. We designed the building as a mixed-use development with a new public space for the community to use and enjoy. In addition to providing office and retail space in the main building, we also built a mix of private and low cost housing for local residents in the area. We also chose to reuse the old building materials during the construction process to ensure minimal disruption to the existing community around the site.

JD: As an internationally based firm in London, Birmingham, Beijing, Hong Kong and the Middle East, has Make noticed any striking differences among clients and their needs from location to location?

Proposal for Esprit flagship facade, Hong Kong, 2008

JP: The most noticeable difference is in the scale of projects. In developing economies, there are definitely more opportunities to work on complex, large-scale projects.

In China in particular, we have noticed that there is a strong focus on urban master planning, to cope with the establishment of new towns, or the expansion of Chinese cities. We have designed master plans for a creative industries hub outside Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport. The development offers a diverse range of building types and sizes — including offices, serviced apartments, hotels, retail, leisure facilities and exhibition centres. This multi-functional destination is well connected, with links directly to the city and the surrounding neighbourhoods.

In the UK, the focus is more on regenerating and redeveloping parts of established cities. An example of this is our Elephant and Castle project. The scheme, one of 10 low carbon zones identified by the Mayor of London, will be on the site of the Heygate Estate, which was completed in 1974. Our master plan aims to build on the strengths of one of London’s most diverse and interconnected areas. 2,300 to 2,500 new homes are included in the plan, with the creation of central London’s largest new park in 70 years.

JD: Have you noticed any striking differences between designing for a second-tier city versus a city like Beijing or Shanghai? 

JP: Having worked across first- and second- tier cities, I would say that there are more similarities than differences. There is a lot of knowledge sharing between Chinese cities because they are very well-networked, and this has helped drive development. For projects such as the Pinnacle One project in Chengdu, we are really building and designing to support and encourage growth, and so our international expertise and experience is well-suited in creating something that is of the same quality as buildings in Shanghai or Beijing.


Interior of the Weihai Pavilion (Image: Contemporist)

Weihai Pavilion

Weihai Pavilion


Art & Design, Market Analysis, Retail