US ar­chi­tects build ‘stature’ in China

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By QI­DONG ZHANG in San Fran­cisco kel­lyzhang@chi­nadai­

Want­ing to be an ar­chi­tect since the age of 5, Gene Sch­nair’s pas­sion to­day is to pur­sue the most in­ter­est­ing ar­chi­tec­tural projects glob­ally. As man­ag­ing part­ner and pres­i­dent of Skid­more, Owings & Mer­rill’s (SOM) San Fran­cisco of­fice, that pas­sion has been ful­filled in more than 150 skyscrap­ers and low-rises in China, with another 150 or so in the pipe­line.

The China World Trade Center, Jin Mao Tower in Shang­hai. the New Poly Plaza in Bei­jing. the US Em­bassy in China and China’s “Wall Street” — Bei­jing Fi­nance Street and more are all prod­ucts of SOM, one of Amer­ica’s largest and most in­flu­en­tial ar­chi­tec­ture firms, with more than 1,600 ar­chi­tects and 10 branches world­wide.

Founded in 1936, SOM first en­tered China in 1994 and got fully geared up there in 2000 when Sch­nair took the helm. The firm is about to set up a full ser­vice of­fice in Shang­hai in re­sponse to the in­creas­ing de­mands of the Chi­nese mar­ket.

“2014 will be a great-leap­for­ward year for us in the China mar­ket,” Sch­nair said. “Af­ter al­most 20 years in China, we are ready to move to the next level. In or­der to have the right cre­den­tials to be­come a fullser­vice en­tity, we need to hire peo­ple lo­cally. We are look­ing into hir­ing 50-100 pro­fes­sion­als and hope that process will be done soon.”

A 29-year vet­eran at SOM, Sch­nair still re­mem­bers his first trip to China in 2000.

“My first time to Bei­jing was for a project that I had no idea an in­cred­i­ble re­la­tion­ship would be built and car­ried along for many years. I never re­al­ized how valu­able and im­por­tant the re­la­tion­ship would be,” he said.

That first project was the $12 mil­lion Bei­jing Fi­nance Street.

As­sist­ing Sch­nair is Tai­wan­born Pa­tri­cia Yeh, who has been a key li­ai­son be­tween SOM projects and Chi­nese de­vel­op­ers from the start. She said the Bei­jing Fi­nance Street project was tough at the be­gin­ning and took a lot of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to reach an agree­ment.

“The de­vel­op­ers had never dealt with a for­eign ar­chi­tec­tural firm be­fore,” Yeh re­called. “The con­ver­sa­tion got so un­pleas­ant that both par­ties got up­set and had to leave the ta­ble. Af­ter more talk­ing, how­ever, even­tu­ally me­di­a­tion brought us to­gether.”

Known as China’s “Wall Street” in Bei­jing’s his­toric center, Bei­jing Fi­nance Street has be­come a vi­brant and sus­tain­able mixed-use dis­trict of 18 res­i­den­tial, ho­tel, re­tail, en­ter­tain­ment and of­fice build­ings. The walk­a­ble center of the West Dis­trict is an­chored by a cen­tral park and con­nected by gar­dens, court­yards and land­scaped path­ways.

The “Wall Street” con­cept was so pop­u­lar that the de­vel­op­ers in­vited SOM to de­sign sim­i­lar cen­ters for its Chongqing, Tian­jin, Nan­chang and Wuhan sites. The busi­ness re­la­tion­ship has been car­ried for­ward for the 23 years since.

Through that ex­po­sure, Sch­nair saw op­por­tu­ni­ties in China’s boom­ing land de­vel­op­ment. Spe­cial­iz­ing in largescale, com­plex projects, he steered the firm’s prac­tice in China.

“We have de­vel­oped what we call our dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter: sim­plic­ity, in­te­gra­tion of ar­chi­tec­tural and engineering dis­ci­plines, and col­lab­o­ra­tion of ar­chi­tec­tures, engi­neers, and plan­ners,” said Sch­nair.

Ac­cord­ing to Yeh, “a grand orches­tra­tor” is needed when it comes to im­ple­ment­ing ar­chi­tec­tural projects in China.

“When you de­sign for a de­vel­oper, you ac­tu­ally have to deal with lo­cal city plan­ning com­mis­sions, land­lords, con­struc­tion teams and ma­te­rial se­lec­tion, from color match­ing to ton­ing. A lot of de­tails are in­volved be­fore we even bid,” said Yeh.

One of the most em­blem­atic projects for SOM in China came in 2008. The US Em­bassy in Bei­jing was one of the largest ever un­der­taken by the US gov­ern­ment. Five Amer­i­can firms com­peted for the job, all were asked to bring ar­chi­tects and com­plete the de­sign work in five days.

“Our team worked lit­er­ally day and night to cre­ate a con­cept for eval­u­a­tion. Diplo­matic at­mos­phere, trust, en­vi­ron­ment for fam­i­lies go­ing over­seas, the mod­ern­iza­tion of de­sign, time­less­ness, all had to come to­gether at the time of the bid­ding,” said Sch­nair.

Awarded to SOM, the 10-acre site has a glass struc­ture that changes with the sun through the course of a day and at night glows like a lan­tern. The sim­ple ge­ome­tries, cou­pled with land­scape el­e­ments of lo­tus wa­ter gar­dens, wooden bridges and court­yards fuse East­ern and Western tra­di­tions.

“The project meant a lot to us, it was a mile­stone for SOM in ev­ery sense ac­com­plish­ing this project, a sym­bolic bridge be­tween the two coun­tries,” Sch­nair said.

The $540 mil­lion 88-story Jin Mao Tower in Shang­hai — still per­haps China’s most iconic build­ing and for a while its tallest — was de­signed by SOM’s Chicago of­fice and com­pleted in 1999.

“We are very proud of its con­nec­tion to Chi­nese cul­ture and sym­bol­ism paired with high-per­for­mance engineering,” said Sch­nair. “In a way it re­ally high­lights the suc­cess of China’s open­ing-up pol­icy and of Shang­hai’s re­turn as a global center of com­merce.”

With a Mas­ter’s in ar­chi­tec­ture and MBA from Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis, Sch­nair be­lieves the best way to keep a com­pet­i­tive edge is to un­der­stand the busi­ness cul­ture and de­velop a long term re­la­tion­ship.

“Most de­ci­sion mak­ers in China and the US have been abroad, seen good land­marks and know it when they need to make a judg­ment call on a bad or good de­sign, which is to our ad­van­tage,” said Sch­nair.

One chal­lenge, how­ever, is a short­age of tal­ent in China. “There aren’t enough grad­u­ates com­ing into the in­dus­try to start with, and the ap­proach to de­sign from East­ern and Western ed­u­ca­tion is very dif­fer­ent. Chi­nese pro­fes­sion­als and grad­u­ates have a high level of in­tel­li­gence and ca­pa­bil­ity, but there is lack of train­ing when they take on chal­leng­ing is­sues that don’t have a black or white an­swer. We might call it prob­lem-solv­ing, or cre­ative think­ing abil­ity. There’s just more of en­tre­pre­neur­ial think­ing in Amer­i­can cul­ture where young peo­ple are will­ing to take risks, and try new ideas when it comes to de­sign,” he said.

Yeh also rec­og­nizes chal­lenges in terms of tim­ing. “In China ev­ery de­vel­oper wants fast de­vel­op­ment, which in­volves tight dead­lines for ev­ery project,” said Yeh. “This is very dif­fer­ent from the US, where we take a long time to get per­mits, plan, de­sign and work on a cal­en­dar step by step.”

Sch­nair is op­ti­mistic about the out­look in China and plans to im­ple­ment the new Shang­hai of­fice with mostly lo­cal pro­fes­sion­als and only a few ex­pa­tri­ates from the U.S.

“We plan to cross-train Chi­nese ar­chi­tects in our US of­fice from six months to a year so that ev­ery­one un­der­stands our stan­dards and core val­ues. Some for­eign com­pa­nies just go to China, hire a few peo­ple and put a sign on the door. Our goal is to grow our of­fice or­gan­i­cally from Shang­hai and im­ple­ment our qual­ity ser­vice,” said Sch­nair.

“To me China un­der­stands the power of great de­sign,” he said. “De­sign ex­cel­lence cre­ates last­ing value, and ex­presses cor­po­rate and na­tional stature.”


Gene Sch­nair says his ar­chi­tec­ture firm Skid­more, Owings & Mer­rill is ready to roll into the next stage in China af­ter 20 years de­sign­ing 150 projects and get­ting another some 150 in the pipe­line there.

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