Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hangzhou Projects

Zhejiang Province, China

I joined Tian Ren Architects in the summer of 2007. This young firm of about forty people was one of the first private design offices in Hangzhou, and they had been searching for a western "uncle" to show them why Chinese architecture was so different from what they saw in the international architecture magazines. At the time, I had no clear answer for that question myself; we learned together.

My Mandarin skills were probably at their peak about then, as i was fresh off a year of language study while teaching English in Shenzhen. But Mandarin is a an ancient and simple language: there simply are no words for many "modern" objects or concepts. A phonetic Chinese approximation of the foreign word is the normal solution. Much of the architectural terminology is western, so the office was also interested in developing the staff English skills; every Chinese student knows at least some English, with instruction beginning in the third grade- but they are mortally afraid to use it. The office provided me with translators for important discussions, but that is cumbersome for real interaction; I developed a fluency in Chinglish, which the staff found hilarious, but allowed us to communicate directly.

As I began to sit in on project design meetings, I had a sense of deja vu: I'd seen it all before. In some cases, I was even able to name both the architect and the building they were copying. Rather than cause for shame, the staff and principals were delighted when i could recognize their quarry. Of more immediate concern than the plagiarism was the poor quality of what they chose to copy: I urged them to at least steal from better sources.

The natural response was "So what do you think is so good? And what does your work look like?", fair questions both...

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New York and New Orleans, United States