The China Construct

The China Construct

Given the cooling of its once red-hot economy, is China the right place for western architects?

Do ambitious firms have a choice? The United States has been nearly paralyzed by the foreclosure crisis and two major wars. The euro has been showing signs that it may collapse. Brazil has been faltering. The once breakneck pace of development in the Middle East has significantly fallen off. With its strong bureaucracy and centrally controlled market economy—somehow not a contradiction—China still beckons, despite these known risks.

But whether or not China is the right place for architects depends upon whom you ask.


Once thing is certain: China is not an easy place in which to work. Since the 1980s foreign architects have traveled there, wide-eyed and full of optimism, to realize projects they generally would be unable to do in their home countries.

Recalling the empire-spreading colonials of the past, some architects seem to do quite well at taking on China. Steven Holl, for example, has built some of his fantastic watercolor sketches. Chinese developers and government officials (often one and the same) seem willing to let OMA do whatever it wants. Young architects just a few years out of internships, like Beijing-based MAD’s Ma Yansong, have landed huge commissions, including iconic high rises, while their counterparts in the U.S. are lucky to receive jobs designing a downtown loft renovation.

But the promise of success in China can come with a price. As architect Neil Denari put it, “There is that knowing wince when you mention China.” The wince apparently means, “Have you made every effort to understand the world you are operating in?”

At a recent LA Forum Pecha Kucha night devoted to working in China, a certain darkly humorous tone permeated the stories told by veterans of building overseas. There were many moments when the shared “wince” emerged as a collective groan or sigh, often ending with sympathetic laughter about compromises made: “Here’s another podium with icon tower”; “There was no program”; “They wanted it blue so we made it blue.”

One presenter summed it up by declaring, “China is about time, process, and metaphors. There is no time, no process, and everything is about the metaphor.” Like many, the speaker, who did not wish to be identified because he would like to continue working in China, is still trying to make sense of his China experience.

To get to the truth about the horror stories from China is not easy—even at an open-bar Pecha Kucha. Speculation and vague rumors are rife. Have you heard that so-and-so had a project built from renderings? Did you know that so-and-so had his designs stolen and he might need to close his office? Did you hear about the firm that lost the competition only to have their idea built elsewhere? Did you hear about the competition that was cancelled after all the submissions were handed in? These are the sorts of unspoken stories that go into The Wince.

Yet the fundamental drive to work in China remains, despite the risks. And architects are developing different ways to navigate these complexities with business savvy.


As Denari observed, “Everybody working there knows about the things that can happen. It’s about gathering intelligence to reduce risk and doubt.” In fact, in the six years his firm has been engaged with China, Denari hasn’t built anything. He figures that 95 percent of the inquiries he receives don’t even get to the discussion stage. “We don’t treat it differently from anywhere else,” he said. “We don’t work with doubt.” He added, “When the visions don’t sync, then the project can’t achieve its highest good.”

Denari, it appears, manages the risks by saying no. Then there is Alvin Huang, a young Los Angeles architect. For him the China market has been a place to dive in and start building a reputation for his LA firm, Synthesis Design + Architecture.

Huang, a Chinese American, started with an unbuilt project that led to a commission for a beach resort in Quanzhou. Everything seemed to be going according to plan until he noticed that the clients kept coming back for more and more changes and development beyond the concept deadline. “It’s not a horror story, yet, and I hope it doesn’t turn into one,” Mr. Huang said. “I was trying to be cooperative, but at some point I just had to let them know we weren’t doing any more work.” There was “radio silence” for weeks. Mr. Huang started contacting other people to see if they could find out what was going on.

“It’s not like I could go over and pull a Tony Soprano,” he said, noting that there is little opportunity for recourse, even with a contract. Finally the client emailed to apologize for the delay in payment, promising to move forward. From his prior experience he was used to delays, but he had never had someone simply disappear. If the project does go to the next phase, he said he’s going to require 50 percent of the fee in advance. “This isn’t a loss yet, but it’s definitely a learning experience,” he said.

“You can count on them to take the shirt off your back,” said  William H. Fain, Jr., partner and director of urban design and planning at Johnson Fain in Los Angeles. “They have a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude when it comes to business.” He’s speaking from fourteen years of engagement with China, a journey that began when his firm was asked to develop the master plan for Beijing’s Central Business District in 1998. OMA’s CCTV and other high-profile projects now sit within the plan.

Still, Fain said, “We’ve never lost anything significant.” This is one reason they concentrate on city planning. “The outcomes for buildings are too hard to control,” he said. Planning is a different market with a different species of client. Fain notes how government officials are inclined to follow signed contracts because they are too high up and vulnerable to being investigated if anything goes wrong. Moreover, he added, one of their rules is that they get paid upfront. “It’s a frontier out there, kind of like cowboy-land. You have to stay on top of the whole thing.”

Craig Hartman, a partner at SOM in San Francisco, points to his deep relationships with “well-connected individuals” as the best way to reduce risks. His advice for architects just starting out on their China adventures? “Learn Mandarin, be culturally attuned, and don’t be a carpetbagger.” (Hartman himself does not speak Mandarin:“Happily, that’s one of the things I delegate,” he said.)


Indeed in the popular imagination of the West there exists the tendency to define China as catching up, as being part of the developing world. In the recent past, China has often been cast as inferior, especially when it comes to such so-called borrowed forms of culture as capitalism and even modernity. Such false historical assumptions can factor in to why some firms lose their China campaigns early on. It is easy to get burned if preparations were not thorough. Or if they underestimate the complexity and sophistication of their Chinese counterparts.

“Parachute architects.” That is what Michael Tunkey, who opened Cannon Design’s Shanghai office in 2007, calls architects who just drop in without preparation. These are the ambitious practitioners who don’t know the context. “They don’t understand where they are and when projects fall apart it seems totally surreal,” he said. Tunkey has seen and heard it all over the years. Foreign architects who lack on-the-ground experience maintain false assumptions and are quick to generalize. “I’ve heard people say they just assumed they would work for free. I always wonder, did they lose their minds on the flight over? Then they get burned and that’s their China,” he said.

For culture clash and sheer loss there may be no better example in China than Ordos, a mostly unrealized city in Inner Mongolia. The BBC recently called Ordos, a coal town built on China’s insatiable hunger for resources, “the biggest ghost town in China.”

Riding the success of their collaboration on the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Herzog & de Meuron and local artist-architect-dissident Ai Weiwei formed a partnership with developers to build 100 1,000-square-meter villas in a remote area of Inner Mongolia. They selected 100 architects from 27 countries (China was not included) to design unique villas as a way to attract more tourists. The list of architects involved included MOS, IwamottoScott, Preston Scott Cohen, and Toshiko Mori.

Ai Weiwei’s resulting documentary, titled Ordos 100, is currently making the rounds at international film festivals. What comes across most clearly is that no one knows how to work together, communications are convoluted and misinterpreted, and expectations are not in sync, to borrow Denari’s term. The 100 architects—many from small firms with relatively little building experience— all have their own ideas. As one said, “I don’t know anything about the client or the people who will use the villa, so I’m simply designing it for myself.”

The film ends with the architects counting their money and then departing for their home countries with no clear understanding of what happened or what the future will hold. Not one of them has been back and there may never be any opening.

Mehrdad Yazdani, who runs his own design studio as part of Cannon Design, is one of the lucky ones. He has completed two of three planned projects, all in Ordos but outside of the Ordos 100. For Yazdani, the experience was about developing a method of working that goes beyond any one project. “We’ve reduced the unknown by tapping local talent,” he said.

He mentioned how they even use Cannon’s China staff on U.S. projects. “We can work seamlessly, twenty-four hours a day,” he added. For both Yazdani and Cannon, China factors into a broader business strategy of outsourced labor and talent. Christopher Whitcomb, Cannon spokesman, describes this as their “SIFMO” methodology (Single International Firm, Multi-Office).

Proving that there is no silver bullet, Los Angeles–based Jerde Partnership, which has built several maxi-sized, mixed-use developments in China, takes the opposite tack, keeping its designers together in LA after their research in China is complete in order to ensure what Jerde vice president David Rogers calls “quality control.”

“Communication is hard enough when you’re brainstorming ideas in creative teams in one place rather than having it spread out all over the world. It just doesn’t work,” Rogers said.

But while strategies may differ, one thing unites these firms: the recession made China even more important. Fain sees this continuing, but not forever. When asked if he thinks China will always need the expertise of U.S. firms, he describes how once clients would just say, “It’s great. Let’s do it.” Today, there is more questioning and more issues of local identity arise. Chinese clients are more critical. “They are learning our methods and it’s just a matter of time before they eclipse us,” he said.

With this in mind, western firms will remain relevant in China only by having something different to offer. Being different is not always easy to define. All have their own approaches and experiences. They know they are not bringing some architectural light to a supposedly mysterious or menacing China. There can be as many Chinas as there are firms and clients, each a series of relationships producing different results within a larger framework of complexity and change. As Fain says, “It’s about listening, luck, skill, and figuring it out.”

And it’s about accepting the limitations of what you can know. With the insight of someone who has known China for a long time, Tunkey summed it up this way: “People who visit China for a week can write a book. Those who go for a month, write an essay. If you live there, there’s nothing to say.”