China winning the construction race

Amy Wu marvels at China's efficient, 24-hour work cycle that gives it brand new buildings in 15 days - and bragging rights next to America

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 2:32am

The race to be No 1 has shifted from the economy to architecture. Last January, a Chinese architectural firm erected a 30-storey hotel in Hunan in a mere 15 days, thanks to the lack of red tape and a 24-hour work cycle.

Now, China's Broad Group has confirmed that, in a month or so, it will start building the world's tallest building in Changsha and complete it in 90 days. The building is expected to go up at the rate of about five storeys a day.

There are two sides to the argument when it comes to speed-building - which seems indicative of China's fast modernisation. Some critics give China a gold star for seemingly cutting through the red tape and unions, and getting things done.

Others criticise the country for not taking the time to carefully plot out the purpose behind what can be viewed as a building frenzy. Some say Beijing disregards public opinion when it comes to such development. Is this, after all, a race to be the tallest, biggest and strongest?

On the one hand, China's 15-day hotel is an example of what can be accomplished when you cut out time-consuming committees. Would New York's new World Trade Centre complex already be complete if it weren't for the red tape and legal labyrinths? On that note, my friends in Manhattan doubt that the long-awaited Second Avenue subway line will ever be completed.

To be sure, in the US, mega projects are often viewed as a landscape of potential lawsuits pot-holed with regulations and restrictions. Regulations exist in nearly every trade in the US.

And then there are the unions. The words efficiency, productivity and, at times, ingenuity seem rarely to describe the US workforce at present, thanks to the lingering strength of the labour unions. In a recent visit to the US, my students who are natives of Hong Kong quickly noted how slow the workers were at the airport, while department store staff and supermarket cashiers seemed to be in a catatonic state and more eager to chat than get the job done.

Indeed, a 24/7 work cycle is unheard of for mega projects these days unless you work for Facebook or a start-up in a garage.

The flip side is that more time and thought can be injected into the blueprints. After all, buildings create skylines and often define entire cities. What would Manhattan be without the Empire State Building, and what would Hong Kong be without the Bank of China as its backdrop?

Over the summer, I visited the Hoover Dam, a piece of mega-architecture 221 metres high and 379 metres long, which protects flooding from the Colorado River in the region. I marvelled at this architectural wonder built in a mere five years by the US government.

The tour guide highlighted the 24/7 work cycle and said that most workers took only Christmas Day off. It is a testament to what can be built with ingenuity and hard work. While lives were lost in the building process, the project provided work for many in post-Depression America. Turn the clock forward to 2012, and it's hard to believe any similar projects could exist again in America. China, well, that's a different matter.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator now living in Hong Kong