Foreign Architects Riding China’s Wave
For The New York Times Magazine, Brook Larmer highlights the flood of American and other foreign architects that have set their sights on China in recent years as development prospects have waned in the west:
Over the past three years, foreign architects and designers have poured into China, fleeing economic crises at home and pinning their hopes on this country’s explosive growth. It is, after all, a place that McKinsey & Company predicts will build 50,000 skyscrapers in the next two decades, the equivalent of 10 New Yorks. MAD’s staff consisted almost entirely of mainland Chinese when Gillen arrived in mid-2009; today, nearly half of his 50 colleagues are foreigners, with designers from Holland, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Colombia, Japan and Thailand. “The economic crisis,” Gillen says, “is a heavy factor in everybody’s thought process.”
This is the expected global economic formula flipped on its head: instead of American workers losing out to the Chinese, China is providing jobs for foreign architects. Even more surprising is the degree of imaginative license that China offers, even demands of, its foreign building designers. With new cities materializing seemingly overnight, international architects are free to think big, to experiment with cutting-edge designs, to introduce green technologies. All at a frantic pace. In a top-down system that favors political will and connections over regulatory oversight and public debate, large-scale projects in China can be designed, built and put to use in the space of just a few years.
China, of course, is not new terrain for international architects. Many top American firms have run offices inside China for a decade or more. Nearly all of the country’s iconic modern buildings have been designed by foreigners, from the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, (by the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron) and the gravity-defying China Central Television Tower (by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas) to the 128-story Shanghai Tower (by San Francisco’s Gensler), which will be the second-tallest building in the world when it’s completed in 2014. The new arrivals, though, come not by invitation or out of curiosity but because they need work. They are, as Michael Tunkey, head of the China office for the North American firm Cannon Design, says, “refugees from the economic crisis.”
See also CDT coverage of Wang Shu, the Chinese architect who won the industry’s prestigious Pritzker Prize in February.