More freedom, bigger buildings: Europe's young architects choose life in China

Published 14th September 2017
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More freedom, bigger buildings: Europe's young architects choose life in China
Written by Oscar Holland, CNNBeijing, China
On her first day as an architect in China, Alina Valcarce started designing a 1.7-million-square-foot development in a city she had never heard of. Her vision for a three-tower complex in Jinhua, about 300 kilometers outside Shanghai, was chosen as the winning proposal soon afterwards. She was just 24 years old.
"I'd just arrived at the office, and they said, 'you need to lead this project,'" the Cuban-born Spanish architect recalled. "It was crazy. I was developing maybe 20 projects a year. Mixed-use buildings, malls with hotel towers, office buildings -- huge developments."
Jinhua Taigu Craft Plaza, Zhejiang, China.
Jinhua Taigu Craft Plaza, Zhejiang, China. Credit: Courtesy of SURE Architecture
Valcarce believes that the majority of people in her graduating class have failed to find work in the architecture profession. She said that those who could secure jobs in Europe now work on projects she deems to be less interesting or challenging -- "restoration and more basic buildings."
In 2011, the year that Valcarce moved to China, Europe was in the depths of an economic recession. Young architects in the worst-hit countries -- including Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Greece -- faced fewer job opportunities and lower wages. In Spain, where Valcarce had previously worked, the property bubble had burst and the construction market had almost halved in just three years.
Yet, in those same three years, China's construction industry grew by approximately 90%, according to government figures. The post-Olympics building boom was in full swing, and foreign architects were in high demand. Although bigger firms -- and "starchitects" like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas -- had been cashing in throughout the 2000s, the European recession prompted a new generation of graduates to try their luck in China.
"I was one of the first ones here after the market in Spain started to go bad," Valcarce said. "After that, there was a wave of European architects coming to China. (Developers) were looking for foreigners to work on their projects -- they wanted a type of special design that they didn't think they could get from local architects."
Valcarce has received a number of unexpected client requests during her time as an architect in China. While at SURE Architecture, she says that the firm was asked to design this art gallery in the shape of a water droplet.
Valcarce has received a number of unexpected client requests during her time as an architect in China. While at SURE Architecture, she says that the firm was asked to design this art gallery in the shape of a water droplet. Credit: Courtesy of SURE Architecture
These "special" designs were often modernist displays of glass and steel. Clients' requests also veered into the type of "weird" architecture often associated with modern China, and Valcarce recalls being asked to design an art gallery in the shape of a water droplet. But business was booming.
"Our office started as four people, and we became 20 very quickly," Valcarce said of the first firm she worked for in China, SURE Architecture. "We were completely overloaded."

Creative freedom

For Valcarce, now 31, the gamble has paid off. Currently the principal of Australian firm GroupGSA's Beijing office, she has worked on bigger and more ambitious projects than she believes would have been possible in Europe. This includes, most recently, a ski slope-inspired exhibition center being built in Zhangjiakou, co-host of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
There are creative advantages, too, according to 37-year-old Nicola Saladino. Having arrived in Beijing from London ("I was sending out CVs pretty much the week after Lehman Brothers crashed"), the Italian found that his profession enjoyed greater freedom in China.
"People were doing the type of architecture that would have been difficult anywhere else in the world," he said. "Not because it was more expensive, but because it was really daring. Offices from all over the world were coming to China because they spotted the opportunity to do things that they couldn't in their home countries."
Sensing this potential, Saladino co-founded his own firm reMIX studio, which is based in a renovated courtyard a kilometer south of Tiananmen Square. As well as designing new structures -- from a 750,000-square-foot school to a geometric circus building in Liaoning province -- his firm also works on urban planning and regeneration projects.
While deep-pocketed developers certainly offer freedom of sorts ("you have clients who don't care about the budget"), Saladino also points to China's lenient planning regulations and openness to new ideas.
"You can have an impact," he said. "In China, we can completely rethink our models of how cities work.
Architect Nicola Saladino at work.
Architect Nicola Saladino at work.
"If you are limited by preserving historical heritage, you're limited in the changes you can make. But if you're planning a completely new city in rural China, you can really challenge the traditional models and come up with something completely new.
"And people usually don't ask for permission to enlarge or rebuild their houses -- they just do it," Saladino said.
Yet all of the architects interviewed for this article express similar frustrations about working in China. Most common among the complaints are the poor quality of buildings and developers' habit of canceling projects after the design stage.
"When you go to very cool buildings and start looking at the construction quality, you see that it can be very low," said Valcarce, whose aforementioned winning design in Jinhua never became a reality.
"A lot of projects end up not getting built," Saladino added, saying that developers are prone to changing their minds. "Or they end up being built by someone else with a slightly different design."

Returning prospects

Should they choose to return home, China's European architects can expect to find an increasingly buoyant job market, according to the secretary general of the Architects' Council of Europe (ACE), Ian Pritchard.
The ACE's most recent study of the profession reports that the continent's architecture sector grew by 12% between 2014 and 2016. And while the market is still below pre-recession levels, the ACE's survey of almost 30,000 architects found that in every country, the majority expected their workloads to increase in 2017 (aside from post-Brexit UK and Italy, where the number of architects per 1,000 people is more than 2.5 times higher than the European average).
"I've heard that in Ireland, for example, once the market started to boom again, firms found their hands full at home," Pritchard said. "People have looked overseas to cope with the peaks and troughs of the (domestic) markets ... but not everyone sees themselves as a permanent émigré."
Thirty-year-old Architect Anna Pipilis has recently returned to her native Greece after more than three years in China. Although yet to explore the European job market, Pipilis believes that her experience -- which includes working on a large residential project in Anhui province with the world-renowned Chinese architecture firm, MAD -- puts her in a stronger position than her contemporaries.
"The pace in China is crazily fast, so, in terms of putting a portfolio together, I've done a lot," she said on the phone from Athens. "What's most important is that I've been through the different phases of a project -- from concept design to construction -- and that's what makes you more experienced.
"If I stayed in Europe, perhaps I'd have more experience in one (area of architecture), but not all of them," she said.

End of the gold rush

But European recovery is not the only factor bringing architects back to Europe. China's construction market is also cooling. Amid reports of international design firms cutting staff and salaries at their Chinese offices, some believe that the golden era for overseas architects is coming to an end.
"In 2015, a lot of foreigners decided to go," Valcarce said. "When I arrived here, I knew 50 or 60 European architects. Right now I can count on one hand who's left. Everyone's gone."
In addition to economic factors, cultural shifts are also changing the Chinese market, according to Saladino. With President Xi Jinping calling for an end to "xenocentric" buildings, Western architects' allure may be wearing off.
"When I arrived, clients would demand foreigners in any big project," he said. "I've been asked by friends to attend meetings just to 'show my face.' But now, more and more Chinese students are studying architecture abroad and then coming back home. They don't have that same reverence toward Westerners.
"We're also seeing the reintroduction of a more conservative, historical architectural style as a reaction to the modern excesses made 10 years ago."
Some of China's foreign architects are now established enough to weather the storm. With her career going "amazingly," Valcarce hopes to remain in Beijing for the foreseeable future. Saladino also plans to stay, having started a family in China.
But the Italian also wants to expand his business in Europe. The prospect of China-based firms opening in the West -- effectively reversing the traditional flow of talent -- is an idea raised by Pipilis in Greece too.
"My studio in China (Studio O) always wanted to open something in Europe when the time was right," she said. "There could be this super-interesting interdisciplinary and intercultural approach that comes from Europe, goes to China and is then brought back to Europe -- it's an ongoing link.
"Or it could get lost in translation."