Friday, July 22, 2011

Shenzhen University Projects

Guangdong Province, China



I was invited to join Studio Wu Jiahua at Shenzhen University in the summer of 2009.

Most architectural practice in China is under the umbrella of "Design Institutes", quasi-government organizations often affiliated with Universities. Private design firms are a more recent development. Professor Wu runs a design studio that falls somewhere in between the two: a for-profit design practice with private clients, housed in an Institute and staffed by his graduate students from the adjacent School of Architecture. While this gave off a bit of an odor to me (of student exploitation, at the least), I was assured it was completely normal situation in China. Professor Wu's practice had become so successful, in fact, that he was expanding into projects in multiple studios; he thought my "western sensibilities" could be educational for the staff as well marketable to the clients.

I had known Professor Wu since almost my arrival in China; I considered joining him prior to my relocation to Hangzhou. Now fresh off that experience, I made it clear that I had no interest in being a "hood ornament" for his practice, but wanted to be an active participant in developing the projects. We agreed to collaborate.




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Initially, most of our projects were local: design competitions for civic projects, a commercial office tower, university expansion schemes and the like. We had design "pin-up" reviews of work from both studios several times a week (largely in English, at Wu's request) and I was asked to prepare "western-style" schemes parallel to theirs.

I had learned from my corporate experience that Chinese design begins always from the outside: the formula is to come up with a flashy envelope, then divvy up the insides as best you can. I was stunned to learn that Chinese architectural education prescribes the unabashed copybook model. While students everywhere are encouraged to examine published projects, browsing for ideas and inspiration, Chinese students are instructed to copy projects whole cloth. There is not even a word for plagiarism, much less a cultural aversion to it. Context is completely irrelevant; most architects have no idea- or interest in finding out what is existing, or may be planned for adjacent sites.

I would take the more western approach of "form follows function" and try to show how architecture is another language. That by careful analysis of local conditions, and judicious choices in orientation, massing, and the materials used, buildings can say something, and can have meaning. With all tradition of feng shui discarded (save the whims of the money spirits), site-specific design has no currency in today's China.













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Later we moved into the emerging market of vacation home developments. In our first effort for a client in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, we quickly realized that there is no tradition of single-family house in China. We had some explaining to do: no one really knew what a villa was...




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The client came to us after he was disappointed with the first construction phase, prepared by other architects- a common occurrence in China. Rarely does an architect encounter a "clean" project, where no one else has commenced work prior to his involvement, be it master planning, site demolition or large-scale construction. Here we were charged with substantially changing the course of development.




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An even more exciting opportunity came with a project near Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province: a competition for development of a large swath of agricultural land, historically reclaimed centuries ago from the wetlands near Hangzhou. Where regional planning authorities had already overlaid a proposed grid of roadways, we proposed a closer analysis of the existing fabric, and a site-specific solution not reliant so completely on the automobile.




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Our best opportunity came from the project at Longmen, Guangdong Province, a journey of about an hour from Shenzhen. This is prime territory for holiday development, close to big cities, but as yet unspoiled by urban encroachment: abundant clean air and natural scenery. The area is also blessed with numerous therapeutic hot springs. A modest tourism base was already in place: our site had initially been developed with a resort hotel resembling a "tulou", a type of round, urban fortress. These distinctive, historic structures- perhaps the first multi-family dwellings- are unique to southern China, and were developed by the minority Hakka people who still inhabit the region. The client asked us to take another look at the master plan for the development of villas around the hotel centerpiece.







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We developed a completely different concept from earlier schemes: holiday life away from the city, a life without cars. We proposed buildings designed to maximize views, and to minimize the intrusion of vehicles: road pavement was minimal and walking was encouraged. The natural environment was celebrated and enhanced. The client had never seen anything like it, but responded enthusiastically to this approach, and asked us to proceed.

The next step in the Chinese development model would be final construction drawings; design development is virtually unknown there. Site coordination is pointless as all projects start with the same blank slate: existing hills are flattened and farmland and depressions buried under meters of fill to achieve this. Site plans, building forms and architectural details are worked out in one pass (if at all), and the total package is handed to the client as a fait accompli.

At this point, I proposed another approach to Professor Wu: all of my schemes heretofore had been presented in tandem with a fallback Chinese scheme, just in case. As an experiment, why not explore the western development model: i suggested we proceed step-by-step, yi bu yi bu, and do real design development of this scheme with the client. Since we were straying so far from the Chinese norm, this would be a safety net for the Owner. But it would also be an educational experience for the clients, our staff and ourselves.








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Designing with the existing landscape, taking advantage of the surrounding views was the most revolutionary aspect of this approach. Dialogue with the client as the scheme developed was another; construction decisions in China are normally as authoriatarian as those from government, top-down with no discussion, no second chances. The client agreed to compromises when shown the ramifications of the decisions (with much trepidation from the staff), and felt like a player in polishing the project.







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We had an unpleasant ripple in the discovery that the site survey provided us by the Owner had a slight inaccuracy: North was 90 degrees off from what was labeled. While this is a definite problem for a site-specific design scheme, studies of orientation and shading adjustments to affected buildings were positive. Where the normal Chinese response (with heads rolling) would be to start over, we showed that we could deal with this.




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When the client decided to reschedule the construction sequence, we showed we could deal with that, too, and provided a revised scheme that could initially stand alone.




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What the project could not deal with was my 3-week absence: when I returned to the project, it was a completely different world...




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Once again, I was badly burned by relying on words to have any real meaning in China...

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New York and New Orleans, United States