Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Architects on the "Fly"

Western architects by the dozens are fleeing the West today to cash in on the biggest building boom in human history—all over the expanding China. My favorite architect, the German autodidact Albert Kahn (1869-1942), the greatest factory designer in industrial history, finished his greatest work, River Rouge for Henry Ford (1917-28), with 120,000 workers, only to face the Depression. No Contracts. No Matter. It happens to the best of architects.

Stalin called and Kahn set up an office in Moscow with twenty-five engineers to industrialize Russia for World War II. Between 1930 and 32, they built over 521 structures there. (Kahn quit when the Russkis were too slow at paying their bills.) Meanwhile the threat of war made him busy once more at home, designing The Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant(1941) and the Willow Run Bomber plant(1941). In 1949 at his Lincoln-Mercury factory, we World War II vets who had run out of G.I.Bill tuition were working summers for graduate school tuition. We joshed that our mighty Kahn had single-handedly won the war between the pinchers of both his American and Russian factories!

This new Chinese boom is no sinecure. Their national building habits are sloppy. I remember when I spent six weeks in Shanghai in 1982 studying Mandarin that my Connoisseur editor asked me to check out the new I.M.Pei Fragrant Hills Hotel, which was between its soft and hard openings outside Shanghai. Pei had just finished his glorious pyramidal entrance to the Louvre, where precise French craftsmanship made that complex structure possible. Alas, the Chinese workmanship was so foul that Pei, his wife and his daughter were on their knees for several days repairing the slovenliness.

Today it’s the gigantic size of the building boom that is the Chinese problem. New York architect Daniel Gillen(32) is showing New York Times reporter Brook Larmer through an unfinished building in a new instant city outside Harbin in northeastern China.(“Building Boom”,International Herald Tribune, March 17-18,2012, p.14, cols.2-5.)They were gazing at row after row of 20 story towers, almost all of the empty. “When I first came here two years ago, this area was just a bunch of fields covered with construction cranes.” Now those farmlands have been transformed into one of dozens of “insta-cities”throughout China. The consulting company McKinsey predicts they will build 50,000 skyscrapers in the next two decades.

Strangely, the foreign architects are reversing the globalization of American factories. MAD Architects Beijing was mostly Mainland Chinese before Gillen’s exodus in mid-2009. Now nearly half of his 50 colleagues are foreigners—from Belgium, Colombia, Germany, Japan, Netherlands,Spain and Thailand. And not all the assignments are drudgeries.

The building they were clambering on—the China Wood Sculpture Museum in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, is a brilliant fantasy of his boss Ma Yangsong,37,”a whimsically torquing tube 600 feet long, sheathed in stainless steel:” The building’s design evokes the natural world, say an iceberg or a stick of drift wood.
Half the old salary, but plenty of opportunities to excel.

And those foreigners are urged to be creative “in a top down system that favors political will over regulatory oversight and public debate”. Such an atmosphere leads to brilliant architecture like the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium of the Swiss pair, Herzog and de Meuron. Green building is encouraged as well. All of this is remarkable as 300 million rurals have become urbans in the last two decades.

Not all “creativity” gets by. Zaha Hadid, that Baghdad born Londoner, with a whimsical devotion to sinuous curves, had to tighten up when the image of a snake was perceived in her design by Chinese eyes—an animal considered bad luck in China. Stuttgarter Stephan Wurster, 38, had to make those tightening changes because their offices are next to a half finished monster south of Shendu called Ocean Park, a single roof covering 25 football fields with hotels, shopping malls, aquariums, amusement parks and a simulated white-sand beach!

Some believe too many out of work Westerners are elbowing too much into this febrile market. International firms are lowballing bids to gain access. Daan Roggeveen, a Dutch architect based in Shanghai who just co-authored a book on Chinese megacities, believes such dickering is killing western firms there.

Still our guide Gillens is keeping his eyes open: his MAD firm has under development the Harbin Cultural Island on the banks of the Songhua River. It will contain an opera house and a performing arts center. He recalls spending a year and a half designing such a complex for his New York firm—and it never got built. Three years into his planned one year Chinese sabbatical, he was asked how long he figured he’d remain orientalized. “How’s the New York real estate going?” he replied. It’s a world architecture after all!

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