Canadian Architect


Chinese Character

Exploring the Ideas of Housing, Urbanism, Towers and Landscape in a Frantic and Contemporary Market Like China Is Not Without Its Challenges. a Recent Seminar Sponsored by the Raic Raised Questions Regarding the Potential for Canadian Architects to Work in the Chinese Market.

February 1, 2006
by Ian Chodikoff

Text Ian Chodikoff

China represents one of the greatest markets in the world, but does this economic potential warrant the risk for the average architect? We are constantly made aware that the 21st century will belong to China, although there is some fear that the construction market will collapse sometime after the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Regardless of mixed market predictions, when the Chinese make a commitment to change, the effects are staggering. Entire cities are being built while construction crews work 24 hours a day. However, unlike industry sectors such as resource extraction or textiles, it is very difficult for architects to conduct an accurate analysis of the ways in which the architectural profession operates within the Chinese construction industry. Architects must learn about their market situation either through good fortune, experience or simply patience and hard work. As each city operates under its own regulation system with respect to building and construction, much depends on gaining local experience and realizing that China is not a homogeneous market.

Last October, a seminar was held in Vancouver that discussed the various issues relating to working in China. Entitled “Phantom or Reality–Opportunities in the China Market for Canadian Architects,” the seminar was sponsored by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) in partnership with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC). The session was also sponsored by Canadian Architect magazine, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Western Economic Diversification, and the Program for Export Market Development. Designed as a practical day-long working session, the seminar included participation from a mix of seasoned practitioners as well as those who were literally days away from embarking on their first venture in China.

Norbert Young, president of McGraw-Hill Construction opened the session with a rapid-fire presentation of statistics relating to the scale of growth and transformation in China. Clutching the very first Chinese edition of Architectural Record under his arm, Young’s presentation was a precursor to the tone of the day’s session: the abilities and appropriateness of branding Canadian architecture abroad. Should Canada help its architects establish themselves in China when countries like France have developed policies to subsidize their architects’ fees by 100 percent to offset the up-front costs involved in setting up a Chinese office? Until the Canadian government recognizes more explicitly the capacities of architects, we will have to fend for ourselves.

Many architects who have not already ventured into the Chinese market may have wondered if they should buy a couple of airplane tickets, hire a competent agent and begin the process of enduring long flights and the gut-busting banquets that facilitate the Chinese way of doing business. With the quality of architecture becoming increasingly sophisticated while the barriers to entry are lowering, it is much easier for today’s smaller and younger firms to enter a market that used to be reserved exclusively for the richest, largest and most famous firms. Today’s world allows for ambitious firms with design talent and innovative ideas to profitably enter the Chinese market. With the many types of business partnerships available, it is possible for Canadian architects to play an important role as a designer for significant projects, as is the case of NOMADE architecture from Montreal. Other firms, such as EKISTICS Town Planning from Vancouver or Six Degrees Architecture from Toronto, have seen their business in China grow rapidly in a matter of months after their first business trip. Larger firms like Bregman + Hamann Architects (B + H) from Toronto who have extensive experience in China are always evolving the way they conduct their practice while seeking to refine their abilities to deliver improved design and detailing, sustainable initiatives and sensitivity to site conditions. And just as Canadian architects learn to work with clients more productively, Chinese clients are learning how to best maximize the skills and ideas that a Canadian architect brings to the table. The case studies presented by these firms illustrated how there are a several methods of exporting a “Canadian brand” to the Chinese market.

Karen Cvornyek, president of the Shanghai offices of B + H, presented a range of her firm’s projects measured in millions of square feet. Considering the fact that architecture firms network across time zones and have achieved a 24-hour work schedule, the time it takes to move from a seductive computer rendering to a set of full-fledged construction drawings can literally happen overnight. Despite the rapid pace of design and a relatively unencumbered permitting process, it is encouraging to witness an increased level of design sophistication in the Chinese marketplace as evidenced by the work of B + H, one of the first Canadian firms to set up an office in Shanghai.

The Vancouver firm of EKISTICS Town Planning was represented by recent Ryerson University graduate Leah Yan who gave a very insightful presentation on negotiating with the Chinese and on the subtleties of arranging business partnerships. Although barely out of school, Yan has rapidly developed extensive knowledge relating to the negotiation and management of her firm’s projects overseas. Established in 1993, EKISTICS is a multidisciplinary landscape architecture, architecture and planning firm. In the spring of 2004, and after two years of participation in the design, the First Forest project located in Beijing began construction. This marked the first EKISTICS project in China and opened the door for a series of other projects that the firm is currently developing, which includes ten master-planned communities in six different cities in China. Because of the workload, EKISTICS has also opened an office in Shanghai.

Based out of Montreal, NOMADE architecture have made a name for themselves in Canada for some of their interesting housing developments in the Montreal area. Martin Leblanc, one of the partners in the firm, has recently begun exploring the opportunities in the Chinese marketplace. Leblanc and his partners represent a new generation of young architects who exude a sense of confidence and entrepreneurship that has not been seen in Canada in over a generation. Recent entrants to the Chinese market, they have already established a small office in Shanghai to facilitate the coordination of their growing roster of projects.

Attempting to offer a Canadian approach to architecture without necessarily advocating for a literal Canadian aesthetic, Lisa Bate from Six Degrees Architecture is a practitioner based in Toronto who is conscious of her firm’s abilities to integrate a variety of design and planning strategies. To her, trying to sell the “Canadian brand” is achieved through the process, more than the product. The Fengjing development for example, occurs over a network of historic and highly utilized canals that will incorporate a Canadian-designed and patented storm-water interceptor system to remove sediment and oil from the storm water. By addressing Fengjing’s need for environmental sustainability as well as its pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular transportation requirements, Bate has tried to bring her team’s sensibilities as Canadian designers into the Chinese marketplace while remaining very optimistic that Canadian planners, architects and landscape architects are coveted in China.

As architects, our task is to ensure that we continue to market ourselves as problem-solvers with a sensitivity to design with and for other cultures. When Bing Thom delivered an inspiring presentation at the RAIC seminar, his lecture became a plea. There is a need for Canadian architects to foster innovation and to encourage manufacturers to develop value-added services and building products for export. Thom believes that these initiatives would only buttress the abilities of architects to sell their expertise abroad. Our
cities are also a vital asset that we should be promoting to clients overseas. For example, a city like Vancouver is far more relevant to the emerging urbanity of the Pacific Rim than many, if not most other North American or European cities. Paris, London and New York have an infrastructure and development agenda that is far less applicable to the emerging cities in China than what Vancouver can offer in terms of the ways in which it tackles the issues of tall buildings, density, new infrastructure and sustainable communities. Canadian architects should capitalize on our fortunate circumstances of being a multicultural nation with a relatively new urban infrastructure. In addition to Bing Thom, all those who spoke at the RAIC-sponsored seminar understand the value of the skills a Canadian design professional can deliver and adapt to a Chinese market. The future is bright for the Canadian architectural profession to establish itself as being representative of global innovation.

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