Architectural firm OMA moves Asian HQ from Beijing to Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 January, 2011, 12:00am

The Dutch architectural firm OMA has moved its Asian headquarters from Beijing to Hong Kong, saying the harbour city has more of the talented professionals it needs to handle coming Asian projects.

The renowned firm denied the move had anything to do with controversy over the CCTV 'trouser legs' building in Beijing, or the furore over a passage in a book written by OMA that likened the design of the tower and the 30-storey building beside it to female and male genitalia.

Many people did not like the idea that OMA founder Rem Koolhaas may have pulled off a pornographic joke at the country's expense.

David Gianotten, who started the Hong Kong office and is now a partner of the company, said the company had not suffered a loss of business in Beijing due to the controversy.

'We will still keep the Beijing office,' he said. 'We just want a stronger presence in Asia and Hong Kong provides a convenient platform.

'We do receive positive comments on the CCTV design.'

The company's architectural team in Hong Kong has grown to 45, up from 12 at the office's opening in 2009, when the firm entered the final round of the design competition for the West Kowloon arts hub.

Now the company is planning to expand to 60 staff in Hong Kong, making it the second-largest branch after its headquarters in Rotterdam. To get there, the company will recruit more local professionals, including fresh graduates.

'It's a change of strategy. We don't aim for the China market only, but the whole of Asia,' Gianotten said.

'Hong Kong by far is the most convenient platform for hiring both mainland and international talent. It provides a good mix.'

While mainland architects were imaginative and those from Taiwan were pragmatic, Gianotten said, Hong Kong professionals were more rounded, adept not only in design, but also in engineering and technical skills.

The company plans to keep the ratio of Chinese staff at 60 per cent and to groom young graduates.

'We don't want to be seen as a company from overseas,' Gianotten said. 'It's important to establish an office that crosses cultures and really knows and understands the local context.'

The company would soon start projects in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam and would also set up an office in Middle East.

Arts and design industry insiders said OMA's retreat from the mainland was not surprising, as many international firms had been experiencing trouble operating businesses there.

'There's a huge cultural difference,' one industry veteran said. 'The mode of business operation in China is very different from where these companies came from. And they have to look up to the mainland government officials, which is certainly not what they are used to.'

In August 2009, mainland media reported that a book written five years earlier by OMA had included an off-colour description of the CCTV building. Koolhaas may have just been having some fun. At other times, he has spoken seriously about the tower's intent to 'generate a space and to define a space' for the state broadcaster.