Architects’ Promised Land

By Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published 19 September 1994, International Herald Tribune

THE booming demand throughout Asia for American-style buildings, including that American invention, the skyscraper, has helped make Asia a hot new market for foreign architects. Services are being rendered by some of the biggest names in modern architecture today, but also by smaller firms and less well-known architects who cater to niche markets.

While buildings are going up at rapid rates in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Jakarta, and, as always, Hong Kong, many foreign architects are most interested in the opportunities offered by China. According to international consultant Brian Bowen of Hanscom Associates, it is the leading developing market in the world for architectural and construction services.

One major beneficiary of the Chinese building boom so far has been Skidmore, Owings &Merrill;, one of the world’s largest architectural firms, which has been actively seeking out business in China for the past three years. Among other things, SOM is designing the $400 million Jin Mao Hotel and office tower in Shanghai’s newly developing Pu Dong financial district.

THE Chinese specified that the building, planned as the country’s tallest, be 88 stories high, a lucky number in their culture, and that offices occupy the first 50-odd floors with a hotel and a public observatory taking up the top stories. The Jin Mao tower will have spectacular views from inside as well as out thanks to architect Adrian Smith’s design, which includes an atrium that shoots up the entire building into its spire.

Mr. Smith, an old skyscraper hand who works in SOM’s Chicago office, believes that a compact city center with tall buildings is a good solution for a densely populated city like Shanghai, which is completely redesigning the Pu Dong district and setting up a new public transit infrastructure there as well. “I don’t see it as importation of U.S. culture into China,” he said. “I see it as a next step in the future development of China so I don’t feel bad about it.”

Cesar Pelli, designer of New York’s World Financial Center and a former dean of Yale University’s school of architecture, made a conscious attempt to understand and incorporate Islamic geometric principles in the twin 88-story Petronas Towers he has designed for a new 12 million square foot (1.1 million square meter) development in Kuala Lumpur.

But Mr. Pelli stressed that his work is not simply “imitation Malaysian. I would never pretend to be Malaysian. I will always be an American architect working in Malaysia,” he said. “Imitation becomes horrible, a joke.”

He said the complexity of the forms he is using, the rich play of tropical light and shadow on the three-dimensional facade, and the bridge that will connect the two towers halfway up will give his buildings an appearance completely different from the skyscrapers found in New York and Chicago.

Not all the projects foreign architects are working on in Asia are as grandiose and costly as the towers of Mr. Smith and Mr. Pelli.

Toronto’s MMC International has found good demand in several Asian countries for its experience and expertise in Canadian shopping center design. “Things were getting pretty difficult trying to do architecture in Toronto,” says MMC managing director Geoffrey Cresswell. “We were fortunate enough to be asked to look at a shopping center in Bangkok. And from that things just took off.”

Mr. Cresswell’s first Thai project, the Seri Center, which features shops, a health club, and food and entertainment fairs, opened four months ago. His Fashion Island project, now under construction in Bangkok, is bigger and glitzier. Along with its 160,000 square meters of retail space, it will also have an indoor park and an amusement park complete with monorail.

Mr. Cresswell now has a Bangkok office staffed with 10 employees. Working with a Thai developer involved in a joint venture with a Hong Kong company, MMC has recently expanded into Shenyang, China, to build an office, hotel and apartment development. The deal allows Mr. Cresswell to avoid much of the infamous Chinese bureaucracy, often a deterrent to companies keen to work in China.

One of the reasons SOM has been able to generate business relatively quickly and effectively in China is Carolina Woo. Ms. Woo, the partner in charge of Far Eastern projects, not only has more than 30 years experience in New York, London and San Francisco but is also a native of Shanghai. “We have proven to Chinese officials and planning authorities that we want to deliver quality design and are sensitive to Chinese culture,” she said.

BUT as much as foreign architects looking for Asian contracts are advised to take into account local cultures and design, Russell Keune, director of international relations for the American Institute of Architects, points out that sometimes what clients are looking for is indeed a slice of America. He cited the case of a Japanese customer who didn’t find the original design for his Eddie Bauer clothing stores American enough.

Due to the strong demand for American design, the AIA is organizing a conference on marketing and architectural practice in Southeast Asia. According to Mr. Keune, the conference will deal with “nuts and bolts” subjects, such as working out joint venture legal agreements and arranging payments as well as construction techniques and availability of materials.

Mr. Keune believes there is a lot more work to be had in Asia and cites Vietnam as a good future prospect. “The Vietnamese don’t have money,” he said. “But a lot of foreign investors do. Japanese clients are now investing there rapidly.”

Both SOM’s Ms. Woo and Mr. Cresswell of MMC agree that Asia will be a vibrant market for the next decade or so while North America and Europe remain comparatively stagnant for architects.

And although Mr. Cresswell sees the competition heating up, not only from North American architects but from European and Australian architects as well, he believes there will be jobs for those whose expertise and experience in specific fields is recognized. But he added, “As a generalist, that’s more difficult.”