China's foreign skyline

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; A01

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.

That has drawn some criticism. A few high-profile Chinese architects and critics say some foreign designers are ignoring Chinese culture and traditions and turning China into a showcase of weirdly shaped structures better left on the drafting table.

"They're using China as their new weapons testing zone," said Peng Peigen, a well-known architect and professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "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."

Peng praised "95 percent" of the many foreign architects in China. But he said the other 5 percent are ignoring the basic design rule that "form follows function." He criticized the Swiss-designed "Bird's Nest" stadium, used for the 2008 Olympics, as an "atrocious design" with a top-heavy roof, and called the French-designed National Grand Theater, known as "The Egg," a dysfunctional and "almost dangerous" eyesore.

Local shortage

Many of the largest, most visible projects designed by foreign architects are government-funded, and Peng and others said Chinese officials - and some private developers - often prefer to see an international name on a structure that they hope will become a landmark.

China has its own architects, but, as Peng noted, the communists who came to power in 1949 did not respect architecture as a profession. Since then, it has been officially recognized only since the 1980s, leaving too few experienced local architects.

James Shen, a 33-year-old architect from Orange County, Calif., came to China with recommendations from his Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, a renowned Chinese architect who had previously led the architecture department at Peking University. In China, Shen said he discovered that "a lot of Chinese clients want foreign architects because they think they'll do better-quality stuff."

Shen, who specializes in product design, also said some foreign architects are designing buildings that Chinese simply find odd or aesthetically inaccessible. "When they're finished, people don't always have a relationship with them," said Shen. He started his own company, People's Architecture Office, because "we wanted to approach design in a way people can relate to it," he said.

U.S. and European architects say it is an unparalleled chance to show off their expertise, experiment with cutting-edge designs, use new energy-efficient "green" technologies, and, for young architects, an opportunity to gain experience on a massive scale.

Chiow graduated with an architecture degree from Washington University in 1985 and relocated to Shanghai in 2004 for SOM. While there is no official count on the number of foreign firms working in China, Chiow said, "All the major American practices are here."

"I'm just fascinated by the urbanization happening in China - and the speed of it," said Chiow, 51. "What China has been able to build in the last 15 years took the U.S. over a hundred years."

For Chiow, who is Chinese American, working in China has an added attraction. "I'm learning about my heritage every day," he said.

Less bureaucracy

Another lure for U.S. architects is the chance to see a project designed, built and in regular use in as little as a few years. In the United States, by contrast, with various bureaucratic hassles, projects can typically take more than a decade to come to fruition, and often much longer.

The speed of development brings its own challenges, several architects said. Among them, the foreign architects' desire to build environmentally sustainable buildings and cities often run smack into the local imperative to build it quickly - and often build it cheaply.

For example, an American architect said that in the United States, buildings are typically designed to last 75 to 100 years, with many of the best-known and best-loved buildings, such as New York's Empire State Building, gracefully entering late middle age. But in China, he said, the private developers often want "a building to last 30 years" maximum. "Their idea of a building is like a commodity. It's disposable."

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