China's foreign skyline

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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

SHANGHAI - Drawn by a building boom unmatched in the world in recent decades, U.S. and European architects are flocking to China, turning Chinese leaders' bold visions into concrete and steel realities and giving Chinese cityscapes a distinctly foreign signature.

At a time when many Western economies are stagnant and many construction projects have been delayed or scaled back for lack of financing, China is on a major push to urbanize - building new office towers, apartment blocks, exhibition halls, stadiums, high-speed train stations and nearly 100 new airports. The boom is offering U.S. and European architects new opportunities and an economic lifeline, as much of their industry is struggling.

Many of modern China's iconic structures, including the New Poly Plaza and the World Trade Center in Beijing and the Shanghai World Financial Center, have been designed by U.S. and European architects.

Many more projects are in the works - in some cases, the equivalent of entire cities, such as the sprawling industrial park being built in Shanghai's Pudong area. Every major city, it seems, is building or expanding a new central business district or financial center - often the size of the downtown of a midsize American city.

Foreign architects have been working in China since the late 1990s. But the real construction boom began in 2001, just as work slowed in the United States. China's government estimates that 300 million people - about the population of the United States - will move into urban areas in the next 15 years.

"Train stations, airports - they really need everything," said Martin Hagel, senior architect with the German firm GMP, based in Shanghai. "It's a place where architects want to be." He added, "The scale of things is unbelievable - building a new city is something you don't get to do often."

And, while many U.S. developers have been wary of skyscrapers since the Sept. 11 attacks, China is a place where American architects say they can build big and tall.

Paul Katz of the New York firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, or KPF, said, "When people in the U.S. were not building tall buildings, we were here building tall buildings." Standing on the firm's Shanghai office balcony, with sweeping views of the city, Katz said, "There's hardly a building you see today that stood 15 years ago."

Free to innovate

China is also a place where foreign architects say they can be their most creative.

In China, "people have no preconceived notion of what building development should be," said Silas Chiow, China director for the U.S. firm Skidmore Owings Merrill, or SOM. "That gives young architects an opportunity to try new ideas."

SOM designed Shanghai's Jin Mao tower, one of the most visible buildings on the Pudong skyline, with its traditional Chinese style, as well as Beijing's New Poly Plaza, with the world's largest cable-net-supported glass wall, and Tower III of the World Trade Center in Beijing. SOM also designed the futuristic car-shaped Pearl River Tower, with wind turbines and solar panels.

SOM has 32 employees in China and is working on 50 projects in the country, with a dozen due to be completed in the next two or three years. "China is almost like an experimental laboratory for different architects," Chiow said.


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