DesignIntelligence Media Group

Architecture Abroad: Chinese Design Becoming a Global Force

by Jervy Zhu

GBBN’s Jervy Zhu talked with DesignIntelligence about the current architecture and construction market in China as well as the state of design education and talent there.

DesignIntelligence (DI): Describe the current Chinese architecture and construction market compared to when you began the Beijing office.

Jervy Zhu (JZ): China is becoming the world’s largest economic power. They have seen high GDP growth in the past 28 years. Interestingly, just last year they hit rock bottom with the lowest GDP growth rate at 6.2%. This year, the government issued a stimulus package with massive cuts in taxes and fees focused on private sectors. Now the projection for 2019 is a good, self-sustaining recovery. Architecture firms still have a lot of roadblocks and constraints working in China, most notably in the need to rely on local design institutions to execute the project design. The government has tight control in terms of how the land is bid on in the open market, particularly in large cities like Beijing. There is also a need for upgrading currently out-of-date facilities for adaptive reuse particularly in the major cities, for commercial, office and residential uses instead—this is becoming a major trend. For example, there are many Olympic-related facilities from 2008 in Beijing that question how we can turn these very beautiful buildings into something relevant to current economic conditions, perhaps by giving them new retail or culturally significant components. There are also many old office towers and commercial buildings that are not up to current standards, yet many high growth technology firms need that space. To build a brand-new office space is almost impossible in a city like Beijing, so turning an existing building into something that fits this need is very appropriate.

DI: What is the rationale for limiting the construction of new buildings in Beijing?

JZ: From a planning and zoning standpoint, Beijing is very unique. It actually consists of two aspects. One is being the capital of China, which is like Washington, D.C.; it’s the central government with many of its governing branches. The other is being the city of Beijing, which is like New York City with a concentrated abundance of resources such as healthcare, finance and educational institutions. The Beijing government is trying to separate these two functions. In a city of 28 million people, how do you regulate the construction of new buildings in addition to the renovation of old buildings? They have essentially set clear borders that indicate, within this area, there will be no new construction at all, such that 98% of opportunities within the city will be renovations only.

DI: In the time you’ve been back in China, what are your observations of architecture and design talent in terms of availability, quality and how well-prepared they are for practice?

JZ: There is an increasing amount of rising, locally trained and educated architectural talent, and many of them are able to get some sort of U.S. education along the way. Could these numbers in talent be a little better? Absolutely. But it is definitely more than what I saw 10 to 15 years ago. There is also a pool of talent consisting of all foreigners. As major cities like Beijing and Shanghai progress and evolve, it creates many interesting living opportunities for younger-generation designers coming from mostly Europe and some Asian countries. They have a very well-rounded education background, but there’s still a shortfall of talent from the local colleges and universities. I’ve also seen an increasing amount of smaller design firms that are becoming very competitive with high design standards aimed at the understanding of a building and its context. Large institutions are also getting better, but they’re playing by a completely different set of rules. They are definitely much more advantaged in this market, because we, as a foreign company, are still not able to do many different things. They are self-protected, and the current architect registration system is really giving them a monopoly in areas like airports and major high-rise buildings.

DI: What is the state of Chinese architecture and design education?

JZ: It’s very worrisome. I’m an adjunct professor at one of the institutions here, Beijing University of Technology. I teach and help students with their graduate projects, and GBBN hires some of them as interns. In my opinion, there are very few Chinese universities and colleges with architectural programs that truly offer training in architecture as a profession—maybe five out of 100. There are quality programs out there, but very few. The top 10 programs in the country are only able to produce about 2,000 out of the 100,000 graduates that are supposed to go into this profession every year. The majority of those 2,000 graduates leave China to pursue further education in architecture or in other areas in North America and Europe. If you ask 10 Chinese architecture students what they plan on doing after graduation, five would say they will not continue architecture, because they feel it is not a sustainable profession for cost of living in a major city.

Architecture design firms in China fall into two categories. One group is focused on service and production. When you go into those large institutions, it’s very commodity based; employees work 12- and 15-hour days, there’s a lot of staff turnover, and so they can only churn out mediocre work. The other group is really pursuing excellence in design, and they’re trying to understand client needs to generate great architecture. They are looking for people that engage in highly competitive architecture programs with a very good educational background. Those employees will make very good money, but some students may be confused with the overwhelming quantity of architecture professions in the major cities where they live and work, and just can’t see their future.

DI: So how do foreign firms need to change in order to thrive within China?

JZ: There is a new aesthetic that requires a deeper understanding of Chinese history and culture by embracing these elements in architecture, so that is something foreign firms need to learn about and be able to implement. Many foreign firms believe the way they do projects in their own country is exactly the same way they need to do it here, but here, no one cares about whether you are from San Francisco, Sydney, Beijing or Shanghai. All they care about is your portfolio, what you can offer, and your relevant project experience. I would tell any foreign firm coming here to approach this opportunity by showing what you can bring, what you can do differently, and managing your project cost. Also, in order to get your foot in the door of some nice projects, a fundamental prerequisite is relevant experience in pursued building type, function and process.

DI: What trends are you observing in different geographic regions within China?

JZ: Over the past five years, I’ve seen our projects mostly concentrated in the northern region of China, and in the last two years most of them have been in Beijing. Beijing itself is well developed, but there’s a high demand for more urban development across many different tiers of cities across China. Our local connections allow us to better understand these locations, control our projects, and enhance our clients’ experience. As a result, our buildings are improving. We are gaining a type of maturity. Previously, that was not how we operated. We could just stay in Beijing, and reach all the way to southern cities like Shenzhen or western cities like Chengdu. We could go everywhere, launch out, and still be able to survive. That doesn’t work anymore because the expectations in the marketplace have matured and there is a greater expectation of quality. I have to think about how our Beijing office can be rooted in Beijing and do more work locally to produce high-quality architecture through each step of each project. That’s the only way you’re able to stay competitive. In my opinion, you must have offices in the markets where you want to build your work.

DI: What changes have you seen in market sectors?

JZ: China’s economic growth still relies on real estate, so developers’ activities are a dominant force. The developers are not the same developers from 15 years ago, however. You really have to break the developers down in terms of their architecture needs in many different areas. Sometimes the developer is purely focusing on residential work, other times they’re operators for offices, or operators for hotels, or operators for senior facilities or for retail. So as the needs arise, we as the service provider are able to cherry-pick which one fits our goals better. If we do less residential work for a developer, what can we do more of on the operational side of work? Since we have a very reputable brand in design excellence, now we are able to decide what we would like to work on rather than be assigned, which is something we’re very pleased with.

DI: Opportunity never exists without risks. What are some of the unique risks in the Chinese market right now?

JZ: Since we are a U.S. firm, a high risk lies in our countries’ relationship—if anything negative happens between the U.S. and China, we will suffer. Of course, if the relationship has positive momentum, we will also reap those benefits. Another big risk is how we conform to local regulations and taxation law. We hope to stay within the limits and be good citizens for doing business in China without getting into trouble, and we have to be watchful for that. Even though there are other potential issues and risks we have to be prepared for, I feel they are manageable. It is an exciting time to be in this profession in China.

Jervy Zhu is principal/managing director China for GBBN. Jervy oversees GBBN’s Beijing office and helps guide projects of all types and scales to completion, including Crane Pavilion, Purple Jade Resort, and Suzhou Science & Technology Hospital. Jervy supports a team culture by leading and mentoring staff on design, project management, innovation, and industry trends.