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Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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China’s design skills deficit challenges its grand designs

Published 30 July 2013 07:06, Updated 01 August 2013 00:46

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China’s design skills deficit challenges its grand designs

Yosuke Hayano of Beijing-based MAD Architects says rapid growth has overtaken the skills development rate in China. Photo: Jesse Marlow

James Brearley first went to China in 1998. The Melbourne architect won an urban design and landscape competition for a 50-hectare city site at Xiamen in Fujian province. It didn’t work. “The project went sour in the end,” Brearley says. “The government had a big scandal and our client was thrown in prison.”

The blow-up was a blessing of sorts. Brearley at least got paid – he was owed seven months’ work. He left, vowing never to return to China, and it might have been the end of the story.

But less than four years later he was back. He won another design competition and a contract to build Shanghai’s Jinqiao Sports Centre, a 20,000 square metre shopping and leisure centre.

His firm Brearley Architects + Urbanists designed a diversified structure. Some buildings were made of steel; some clad in glass; another part of the design was a two-storey timber structure. Then reality hit.

“We found we couldn’t get half of what we’d designed actually built,” Brearley recalls. “They said: ‘We don’t have any engineers that know how to do this. For over 40 years we haven’t had any timber buildings in China.’ ”

It was the same with the steel. Brearley had designed big cantilevers – beams anchored at only one end – and thin edges. Local architects, he found, were in the habit of handing over fine design work to a construction company that worked in steel.

“They would be a local construction company that would knock something up that you’d find out the back of Horsham Horse Stables,” he says. “It’d be as rough as guts, designed in two minutes flat and built even faster.”

It’d be as rough as guts, designed in two minutes flat and built even faster.

Speed but not quality

Modern Chinese architecture is best known for high technology and fancy structures like the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, as the National Stadium and National Aquatics Centre were known during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The world’s second-largest economy has a growing appetite – and the money to pay – for cutting-edge designs by big-name architects and the latest building technologies.

But what it doesn’t have in great quantities are skills to design and build the many structures that the country continues to build, despite a much-reported economic slowdown.

The skills shortage is felt hardest at the level of commercial architecture, where the residential and other urban facilities being built now will influence the lives of ordinary people and communities for decades to come.

In making his discovery, Brearley was following a fine tradition. American architect John C Portman had spent 10 years on the Shanghai Centre, a landmark hotel, commercial and residential space completed in 1990. He was limited to using the skills and materials that were locally available.

“It took him five years to suss out the market, do the negotiations, take groups of people to Atlanta, wine and dine them and five years to build,” says Anne Warr, a Sydney-based architect who lived in Shanghai and has written an architecture guide to the city. “But it’s remained a successful building commercially and design-wise.”

Low skill levels aren’t just a concern for commercial and residential designers. Yosuke Hayano is one of three principals of Beijing-based firm MAD Architects, which won plaudits for its curvy twin “Marilyn Monroe” residential towers in Toronto. Even on the high-end structures he designs, there are crucial skill shortages.

Castles in the desert

It’s not a uniquely Chinese dilemma. Architects the world over have to match the ambition of a design with the skills of the labour force that will realise them. In China’s case, however, rapid growth has overtaken the country’s rate of skills development, and architects can struggle to implement the high-end plans their clients want, Hayano says.

In 2005, MAD Architects built a 41,000 square metre museum in Ordos, a city on the edge of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia.(Tellingly, this economy built on speculative financing has imploded, with district governments reportedly borrowing from companies to pay municipal salaries.) While experienced workers can usually be found for nationally significant projects or in large cities like Shanghai, the problems in smaller or remoter areas are acute, Hayano says.

In Ordos, MAD gave up on its original plan that included laying stainless steel plates over a curved structure, with small gaps between plates, as their workers did not have the desired accuracy. Instead, they overlapped the sheets.

“We cannot expect to have fully educated, fully skilled workers on each construction site,” Hayano said in an interview with BRW during the National Architecture Conference in May. “If they start very simple, it’s OK, but China demands this very advanced geometry and complex projects. This is kind of a contradiction.”

If they start very simple, it’s OK, but China demands this very advanced geometry and complex projects.

The dilemma limits the number of architects who can work in China, as it requires foreign practitioners not just to be good designers, but able to manage Chinese construction contractors and workforce, he says. It’s not something everyone can do.

“At the end you have to be very local to apply your experience to a building,” says Japan-born Hayano , who started the firm in 2004 with Ma Yansong, who he met while they were working for Zaha Hadid in London, and Dang Qun. “I’ve met many, many foreign architects coming to China. I know they have lots of experience, they have lots of confidence in their ability as architects, they do really good design, also they really do the management of the construction site, but [their skills are something] we cannot apply in the current Chinese building industry.”

MAD in China

It is a lesson Brearley has taken to heart. Despite the early hiccups, he set up an office specialising in public landscape and urban planning in Shanghai in 2001, and now employs 70 people there. China work accounts for 99 per cent of his income. The basics are what matter, he says.

“The big challenges in China aren’t about sexy surfaces,” Brearley says. “The challenges are about sustainability, building buildings that are sensible. When you build a housing product, you’re not building one house, you’re building 500 apartments. If you can convince the developer to spend some extra money shading all of those windows, then you’ve achieved a hell of a lot.We spend a lot of time trying to get these big things right, rather than using innovative new surfaces and materials that probably are not going to be able to be done anyway.

The big challenges in China aren’t about sexy surfaces. The challenges are about sustainability, building buildings that are sensible.

A further challenge is managing developers and public authorities who have less interest in urban design that meets longer-term community needs than in getting bang for their buck.

And then there are the clients

“We have to be very innovative, very strategic, very thoughtful about how it can work perfectly for the developer and have the potential to change and contribute to the city when the time comes,” he says.

Brearley gives the example of a new street lined with apartment blocks. Typically set back from the street and fenced off, such designs create high-density cities but prevent life, such as that brought by hawkers and shops, from developing on the streets. Residents are instead forced to travel to dedicated shopping centres. Building street-level spaces for shops would prevent this, but developers frequently reject the idea, as there is little value in street-level shops in a new district. They want to sell the largest number of apartments possible.

Meanwhile, the ultimate client, usually a local government, often also has only a limited understanding of city dynamics. This leaves it up to the architect to build in the flexibility needed later, even in 10 years’ time.

“We make the ground-floor apartments and give them a private front yard, with a front fence that touches the street,” Brearley says. “The Chinese are very entrepreneurial and as soon as there is the need for a shop, they’ll pull down their front fence and start selling things from their apartment.”

Building in flexibility

The winner of last year’s Pritzker Prize, regarded as the profession’s highest honour, was Chinese architect Wang Shu, who uses everyday techniques and materials, including thousands of recycled tiles, to build urban areas. The award citation pointed out that China’s urbanisation, “like urbanisation around the world, needs to be in harmony with local needs and culture”.

Wang’s victory summed up what China needs, Brearley says. “He builds a horse and cart – but a really great horse and cart! These other architects come and build a Lamborghini, but there are no technicians!”

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