China's boom a saviour for American architects

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2012, 12:00am


Call it reverse outsourcing. In a trend that has been accelerating for the past few years, US architects and interior designers are finding that most of their work is now in China as they cater to the nationwide building boom; although analysts have been predicting the softening of the market for several months now, American architects say that, if anything, business is picking up.

Top-notch US architects, who had typically worked on theme parks, outsized celebrity mansions and sleek skyscrapers in the US, largely shifted their focus East as the US market softened. As a result, US names are now attached in China to everything from golf courses and water parks to resorts and even super- deluxe private homes of 200,000 sq ft or more.

'Right now, we have well in excess of eight million sq ft of homes just in China,' said Richard Landry, a regular fixture on the Architectural Digest AD100 top architects and designers in the world. His Los Angeles-based Landry Design Group has completed homes for the likes of Rod Stewart, Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen, and Sylvester Stallone.

But it wasn't just the celebrity associations that first brought Landry to the attention of developers in China. Some cachet was acquired through a 2006 book, Modern to Classic: Residential Estates by Landry Design Group, which had been translated into Chinese. The company is known for its expertise in traditional European architecture, and found that this is what Chinese clients came to them for.

'We got a lot of calls because of the book and it brought us a certain level of name recognition,' Landry said. 'Even now, we get contacted at least every week by potential clients.'

Among his current projects are a 200,000 sq ft house in Shanghai that has been under construction for almost two years. Although Landry won't go into details, he did say that the home was for 'one large, extended family'.

'It's an amazing property,' he said, 'with beautiful estate grounds, gardens and water features. We have understood the culture of it, where the family can live together but where everyone has their privacy. These are people who do a lot of philanthropy and entertain a lot and need a place not just to live in but to hold events and fund-raisers.'

Architects say the mainland construction boom could not have come at a luckier time, some even admitting that it kept their businesses from folding long ago .

'Projects in China now make up about 65 or 70 per cent of our portfolio,' said Ahsin Rasheed, who heads DDG, a Baltimore-based company whose international projects range from retail and town centres to hospitality and residential. Although the company started working on the mainland a decade ago, it wasn't until more recently that the number of commissions began to soar.

'When the meltdown happened in 2008, we started getting calls from our US clients telling us to stop work. So we hunkered down and started making calls to contacts in China and we got work and continued to stay in business,' he said. 'If we hadn't gone out and canvassed that business, we would have shut down.'

Rasheed's company's current mainland portfolio includes hotels, resorts, duplexes and town houses around the country. Current projects include Grand China, a vast retail centre in Tianjin that, at 4 million sq ft, will become the country's largest shopping centre when it opens. DDG also worked on the Xi Cheng Clubhouse in Shenzhen, part of the Xi Cheng Buena Vista mixed-use community. Rasheed has hired several Chinese-speaking architects to work in the Baltimore office.

Detractors may argue that while all this is good news for US-based architects, it is less than optimal for their Chinese counterparts.

'The Chinese are trying to build so much, so quickly, that they would use local talent - it's just that there aren't enough of them,' said Chris Mitchell, CEO of M+M Creative Studio, based in Beverly Hills, California. 'We're doing two projects through a developer in Chengdu - that same developer has 60 or 70 projects.'

Still, more than any perceived scarcity in homegrown talent is another, more critical, factor.

'Developers in China really appreciate diversity more than anybody,' said Mitchell. 'They try to create marketable environments that will sell to middle- and upper-middle-level clientele with money. They are not trying to create something for nothing.

'They are trying to move property and they go to multiple firms for multiple projects so they don't create a cookie-cutter look.'

That's certainly the case for the Luxelake Villas project that Mitchell is working on in Chengdu, which is as urbane and sophisticated as anything that might be found in, say, the Hamptons or St Barts. These 20,000 sq ft homes benefit from the wealth of craftsmanship in the area, including stone and wood carving that, says Mitchell, 'rivals the Egyptians''.

Chinese architects are almost always called in to collaborate with their American peers, and joint- venture deals and offices are beginning to mushroom.

The Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group, commissioned to design the Loong Gate Resort in Hainan - a theme park with resort hotels, championship golf course and homes - recently began collaborating with century-old Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China's leading universities, to create the Architectural Design and Research Institute.

Working from a shared office in Beijing, architects from Cuningham and licensed professionals and graduates from Tsinghua's architectural programme will pursue projects related to entertainment, leisure and health care - fields that are less on the radar of US firms.

'It's critical for any US firm that wants to work in China to have a presence here,' said James Scheidel, chairman of Cuningham Group Architecture.

Scheidel said that being able to work side-by-side with local architects helped address the 'cultural component' of doing business in China, and was an advantage when pursuing new opportunities.

'We are looking at a large health care project - which is a growing market in China - as well as creating the next generation of schools and learning centres,' he said. 'Having an established presence there will open up a variety of markets to us.'

Interestingly, Chinese developers are savvy about portioning out work, so although it seems that US architects have the lion's share of projects, that may not strictly be true.

'None of these buildings are being done solely by an international architect,' said Charles Peace, regional director for Asia for Leo A Daly, a 100-year-old family-run architect firm based in Omaha, Nebraska.

'There are different stages of design, and a lot of collaboration, not just because it's cheaper or quicker but also because foreign firms are not always registered or licensed to do half of this work.'

Leo A Daly is now working on about 10 large-scale projects across China, including the national headquarters for China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone operator, in Beijing.

'Like anywhere else, there are literally thousands of developers in China, from the small provincial ones to the large national ones,' said Peace. 'Very simply, we focus on the big national developers. We are not hunting around in the backwaters of China for clients.'

US architects are aware that the China boom won't last forever, so they are diversifying into other markets - Cuningham has been involved in projects for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, while Rasheed is looking at Russia.

'The pie is getting bigger,' said Peace, 'but most of it goes to local designers anyway. We are getting more projects, but we are getting less work out of each project.'