China: One Big Rendering After Another
Let me say first, I love Shanghai and I love our new office there. The city is magical. It’s vast, energetic, alive, a sensory overload of culture and technology. At every turn there is something new for the novice Asia traveler (like me) to experience. Sights, sounds, smell and oh yes textures (though the textures of seahorse soup and Szechuan frog are a story best suited to my new food blog “things I didn’t know you could eat, and best you don’t”).
The cityscape has a rapid pulse of new construction, centered on the heartbeat of the Huangpu River: on one bank Pudong, the financial center, and on the other the famous, historic Bund. There are cranes and construction everywhere and never a single view without a moment of amazement: wow- how did they build that? — or more accurately how could they afford to build that? It truly is an amazing city for architecture and what I have come to enjoy immensely as probably one of the largest melting pots of global design talent on display in any city on earth. It’s a phone directory of international firms. From every corner of the globe design firms have set foot there in an attempted to leave a mark on Shanghai. Some buildings are shiny jewels, fantastic epitaphs to design feats and constructability, never mind economic conundrums; but just as many are the types best described as the ones you try to flush away.
This really brings me to the point of this story. How can it be that this land of rampant design opportunity shows such a mixed bag of work? Why is it that more than half the buildings I have seen in magazines and books, gawked at out taxi windows, and held my breath to see in person can only pass what I now term as the 100ft test? The architecture looks great from a distance, but boy oh boy, up close I think along the lines of “my kid could do better.” Why?
I first wondered if it could be that design codes and agencies are too lax to prevent some of these mishaps. Not so. In my work there, I’ve noted planning processes, necessary applications and enforcement are just as key to construction as they are in the U.S. or even as with some of our more efficient European friends. Can it be that these ambitious designs are simply too difficult for the average contractor to construct? This too I doubt given that I have seen construction sites here with staging and technologies that are world class. So why then?
The light bulb came on during a tour of an enormous hospitality resort, during which I asked what I felt was a relevant question to our tour guide: “It’s a marvelously large development with great bones. When will you be remodeling?” I asked the question innocently based on the building conditions I saw, similar to those that I’ve seen in 30-year-old hotels and retail centers needing assistance to fix the wages of time.
My guide’s answer: “Oh, this property is only a year or so old.”
Ack, swallow one’s tongue, no offence meant, but this place is tatty. (Translation for you non-Scots: dog eared, rundown, in gentle need of love and attention.)
The issue up until now is simple and goes back to the open door policy of the world’s designers invading China, and specifically Shanghai. They did invade, gobbling up as much work as they could. And like all design firms, they were incredibly happy to only do design work. This is the only method of practice in China. Foreign firms can only do work through design development, although many firms were only contracted to do design through those visionary renderings that adorn architects’ websites and offer no more information than the beauty pageant of concept and at best schematic design. In many instances, those pretty pictures went into the hands of a local production team. Likely little to no communication with the original designer was available, and the only real direction given was essentially: the client has bought the pretty picture so it’s time to execute. And execute quickly.
In short: the buildings that don’t pass the 100ft test have been built from renderings. And building from renderings sucks.
Thus we have architectural elements and detailing that simply cannot stand the test of time. Flush and non-descript details filled with caulk. Architectural elements misused and quickly worn out. Materials that look like they were cut to fit by the wrong sub-contractor (like letting the framer do the caulking or the tiler do the sheet metal details). Things look worn out, just slightly misaligned, just slightly off. The rendering looked fantastic. From down the street you gawk in awe at the fact someone built that. But from across the street you are dismayed to discover how someone built that.
Now this is just my opinion. There are certainly other factors in play here. At times the quality of the material plays a major role in the run-down appearance, as do changes in budget (no one is immune from this), or the skill of the contractor. But in general it seems all too obvious that the charge was to simply execute the rendering as closely as possible and the quality with which it stands up is a secondary concern.
Based on personal experience working with a Chinese design institute CD execution team, I can say that while faced with the intent of the foreign firm’s renderings and the strict message “don’t change our design,” they simply couldn’t see a better, more sustainable, more economical, and better solution to a base building problem even when it was proposed directly to them.
The good news is that we can now address this process in the past tense. The new work being accomplished in China is mostly at a level enviable to the rest of the world. The new crop of jewels popping up on the city’s skylines is amazing, executed with a design rigor grown through ten years of learning. Ten years in the construction world is fast. In about a decade China has figured out not only how to grow, but grow with incredible speed. They have perfected and are now employing construction technologies that the world may end up following. It’s exciting times to be in China. A new wave of design and construction is beginning, with more soul, more rigor, more relevance, and more longevity.
Sure, I love renderings. They capture the moment between our dreams and reality. But the real artistry of architecture is the translation into a crafted reality. A peer once put it to me: “Architecture is the art of construction.” Thankfully we now have the chance to do it with an order of seahorse soup and Szechuan frog on the side.