Elite Demand Drawing More Architects To China

Money Often “No Object” As Architects Given Free Rein Over Projects

The Zhongkai Sheshan Villa project has been a major opportunity for many non-Chinese architects (Image: Olson Kundig Architects)

The Zhongkai Sheshan Villa project has been a major opportunity for many non-Chinese architects (Image: Olson Kundig Architects)

The New York Times writes this week on the growing number of Western architects who are finding their “dream client” in the booming Chinese high-end property market. Often enticed by projects free of budgetary or creative restraints, these architects are able to experiment in China on a level rarely allowed in developed markets.

Though some architects are using this design freedom to “put their stamp on the Chinese skyline,” as the Washington Post put it last fall, others are working on a far smaller scale, focusing on the personal villa market. Once found primarily in the outskirts of top-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the fortunes being created in second- and third-tier cities is seeing demand among ultra-high-net-worth Chinese in the country’s interior boom.

From the New York Times:

[Seattle architect Stuart Silk’s] 17-person firm is among scores of small to midsize architectural practices across the United States that are enjoying a startling boom in Chinese projects — whether in spec mansions for sudden multimillionaires or quarter-mile-high skyscrapers. Although a handful of big firms, like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago and HOK of St. Louis, have extended global tentacles for generations, it has been only in the last half-dozen years that Chinese projects have gushed down to their smaller brethren.

These firms are grateful for the commissions, and not only for the obvious reason — that the Chinese work has helped fill the void left by a listless American economy. More intriguing, the architects say, is that Chinese developers and even government agencies are proving to be better clients than their American counterparts. They say the Chinese are more ambitious, more adventurous and even more willing to spend the money necessary to realize the designs. This thrills the architects, who have artistic undercurrents that often struggle to find an outlet.

The article goes on to cover the differing construction cultures in the U.S. and China, specifically focusing on the rapid pace at which projects are undertaken once the design is finalized.

As Americans take on Chinese clients, they are adapting to some fresh nuances in the architect-client relationship. It’s a swirl of patient relationship-building, fast-track decision-making and lyrical moments that, they say, would be unusual in American business dealings.

Chris McVoy, senior partner at Steven Holl Architects in New York, says a developer in Beijing gave the firm three months to develop a concept for a high-rise housing project that replaced a Mao-era factory in the heart of the city. The firm injected into the project Mr. Holl’s long-simmering ideas about urbanism, tapping the earth underneath for geothermal energy, and fixing everything it saw wrong with the dreary Soviet-inspired high-rises in Chinese cities.

“We thought they’d say, ‘You’re crazy, forget it,’ and we’d walk away,” Mr. McVoy says. “We presented to about 20 people, and when we were finished, of course they all looked to their president to respond first. He said: ‘Anybody can build buildings. Few can build poetry.’ ”

Of course, not everyone is as pleased with the increasing presence of foreign architects, and their designs, in China. As the architect and Tsinghua University professor Peng Peigen told the Washington Post last year, foreign architects are “using China as their new weapons testing zone…These kind of stupid things they build could never be built in their own countries, in this life, the last life or the next life.” A China.org.cn op-ed offered similar criticisms, declaring that “China shouldn’t be a lab for foreign architects.”

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