Maintaining design quality in China’s young and bullish culture is difficult but achievable

David Cash

China is the ideal place for architectural adrenalin junkies. One thing of which you can be sure when you arrive at our Shanghai studio in the morning is that whatever you thought (and planned) to do during the day ahead, the chances are that you will end up doing lots of other totally different things instead. Inevitably the phone or the doorbell will start ringing and another client will be waiting to talk about a new project, the first ideas for which will doubtless be required in lightning quick time.

We opened the BDP Shanghai studio two and a half years ago with two architects and an office manager, each of which had transferred from locations in the UK. After a steady start when we visited as many potential clients and contacts as we could, things took off. 

Within a year we had moved into new premises which initially felt very spacious but are now filled to capacity as we are 40 strong. In that time, the studio has had 90 separate commissions and we have designed two completed buildings. While the team in Shanghai collaborates with all of BDP’s UK studios on different projects, it is also developing an increasingly large portfolio of its own work. This includes excellent work of which it is justly proud.

A Chinese proverb states: “He who hurries cannot walk with dignity”

BDP’s Chinese work includes several university projects, museums and urban masterplanning work but the commercial sector is undoubtedly the most active. We are working on a number of mixed-use city centre development projects usually with retail, office, residential and hotels being incorporated into them. Chinese clients learn fast and are eager to take advantage of the latest thinking and ideas from the west.

Like the English, the Chinese are fond of proverbs. They have one which says: “the young and bold favour speed, while the old and experienced move slowly.” Never has a statement been truer when referring to the breathless speed of a modernising China that our Shanghai studio finds itself working in. From rapid sweeping changes being made at a high political level to the millions of Chinese entrepreneurs and developers that are burgeoning across the country, in a young and bullish culture BDP has had to learn fast in order to keep up.

However, with speed there are inevitably difficulties. Another proverb states: “He who hurries cannot walk with dignity”. It is one thing to design quickly but another to deliver well in a country where building lifecycles are sometimes measured in months rather than years. There are inevitably conflicts with our core BDP values in relation to design and quality but we have found that nevertheless, we can create outstanding buildings and spaces. However in order to do this, we have had to adapt.

Sometimes it is necessary to impress on Chinese clients that there are no short cuts

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without”. It is often the Chinese view that design with a great conceptual idea, even if lacking in execution, will be infinitely more worthwhile than a bland concept which is polished to perfection. The unwritten realities of clients’ aspirations in China are often difficult to define and gauge. In addition, Chinese clients have often been spoilt by some Local Design Institutes (LDIs) who sell their work quickly and cheaply to a formulaic script. Like the telesales of the design world, they are rewarded on commission and create expectations for project timescales that are unprecedented in their brevity. Sometimes it is necessary to impress on Chinese clients that there are no short cuts.

Our experience is that the road to success in China is about articulating that first great idea with vision and conviction. However having a second, third and maybe even a fourth concept in one’s back pocket is also helpful.

In a land where people can go from nothing to becoming dollar billionaires in under 10 years and where time waits for no man, a Chinese client is still a very pragmatic one. As long as the value of our design is understood and appreciated, clients increasingly recognise the importance of time and process to achieve the vision. It will not be an easy ride to get to that point against the insatiable pace of development but if it can be achieved, the opportunities are huge. 

As the Chinese say: “First you make happy those who are here and those who are far will come”.

David Cash is chairman of BDP