Ever wonder what happened to all those unemployed architects during the recession? Just like in previous recessions, some left the profession. Others left the country to chase jobs and for many that meant looking to China. Even starchitects like Frank Gehry are laying their pencils down in the middle kingdom. In an article for the Magazine section of The New York Times, Brook Larmer profiles expatriate architects and the pros and cons of displaced design dreams.
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.”
In China, foreign architects are finding job opportunities and also opportunities to actually design (instead of just producing documents) at a relatively young age. Architects from the States and Europe are valued for their capacity for innovative design and their job in China is to focus on creativity instead of viability. It’s a luxury that they wouldn’t have in their home countries.
While the expat architects enjoy artistic freedom, they also have to grapple with the priorities of speed and quantity. Design imperatives from Chinese clients and employers are just as fast and furious as the country’s infamous construction practices. China’s huge rural-to-urban population shift and income boom push developers to roll out entire cities in record time. Larmer cites that around 300 million Chinese citizens became city dwellers over the past two decades.
Other challenges lie in the veiled worlds of real estate development and construction in China. Unlike in the states, foreign architects in China become bystanders after handing over the design. Local regulations give control of the building process to Chinese design institutes.
An unwelcome byproduct of the foreign talent imports is the increasing competition among firms.
As foreign architects continue to arrive, there is also increasing competition for jobs and business. Some international firms have even started lowballing bids to try to buy their way into the market — a development that is “killing Western firms here,” says the Shanghai based Dutch architect Daan Roggeveen, who is the co-author of a book on China’s new megacities. In the meantime, Chinese and foreign firms alike are moving to localize their staffs — both to cut costs and to cultivate a new generation of Chinese architects, many of whom have trained abroad.
The country’s building frenzy and aesthetic priorities remind me of Las Vegas, with its flashy forms, fast construction, and recently, new buildings that sit empty or are demolished. Still, the influx of expatriate architects will continue while China is willing and able to pay for design services during a time when western countries are not.
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