International Architecture Firms in China

We recently came across a very interesting article in the China Daily which discusses the work done by many of the international “Star Architects” in China. With more and more signature projects appearing, we would be keen to hear your thoughts on whether China is being used as a testing ground for international firms.

Original article published on 16th October 2011 in China Daily Hong Kong


They are an unmistakable part of the urban cityscapes. But is China a playground for international architects or an abused testing ground for bad design? Liu Yujie examines the landscape and finds out if these new buildings are towering landmarks or last

In Beijing, the National Stadium, otherwise known as the Bird’s Nest, was designed by Herzog & de Muron from Switzerland. The National Center for the Performing Arts was by French architect Paul Andreu and the landmark China Central Television Headquarters in the heart of the central business district is the work of Rem Koolhaas from the Netherlands, while the Beijing Capital International Airport was designed by Norman Foster from the United Kingdom.

'Birds Nest (Beijing National Stadium)' photo (c) 2009, Ndecam - license:

Since the beginning of the millennium, the works of international architects have sprung up like mushrooms in China’s cities. These urban gurus not only brought their cutting-edge designs here, but also brought the whole world’s attention to what can be built in China. Constant global media coverage has portrayed China as an open stage for ambitious, innovative urban design, a reputation which initially pleased those who were commissioning the building, but later raised doubts and reflections of whether the country was being misused as a testing ground for maverick projects. It is true that today’s China has both money and mind for probably the largest urban construction movement in human history, a major motivation for first-class architects overseas.

Zaha Hadid, the world’s foremost female architect, drives it home when she compares China to “a perfect blank canvas” for architects with unlimited creation.

Nevertheless, Peng Peikeng, a senior commentator at Tsinghua University, is angered by the fact that some well-known foreign architects have obviously taken advantage of China’s eagerness to build dazzling modern cityscapes. He feels there has been too many architectural experiments here in recent years.

“ The Pritzker prize, the Nobel prize in architecture, is awarded to honor those who build works demonstrating ‘durability, utility, and beauty’. This is widely accepted as the yardsticks for good building design. Sadly, many of these foreign architects’ works in China display none of these.”

Peng supports his criticism by pointing out that many of these designs would never be accepted by the architects’ home countries because they would have failed city planning concerns, stricter sustainable development demands and tighter budgets.

That is why they come to China, Peng says, a country that is currently open to almost anyone who can contribute “landmark buildings” in whatever forms.

The architects are not solely to blame. More often than not, they are expected to deliver constructions whose only condition is to stand out from the crowd.

A recent plan for a new venue of China’s National Museum of Fine Arts, “the world’s largest art museum”, is the latest target for debate. It will be located near the National Stadium in Beijing’s Olympic Park and there are already worries that it may turn out to be another pair of “giant underpants”, the nickname for the asymmetrical twin legs of the CCTV Tower in heart of the Chaoyang district.

'Beijing' photo (c) 2010, Ali Utku Selen - license:

The desire for the new and eye-catching may be the result of historical baggage.

“China’s architectural style was greatly influenced by the Soviet Union for a long time, when the pursuit for charismatic individual design was curbed. It has now led to an outburst of fancy for the avant-garde, chic and novel, a desire made possible by the wealth accumulated during more than 20 years of economic reforms and opening up,” says Wu Liangyong, a senior architect and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering.

The desire to be different can lead to some odd experiments in the neighborhood. For instance, Jingya Restaurant, a 12-storey building a few blocks from the Forbidden City has a facade that is supposed to reflect the “awesome power of the ocean”.

Raimund Abraham, the late American architect behind the design, once told Chinese media that the owner told him to build the most “impressive” landmark in the capital. He did it. But did it please everyone? At least 9 out of 10 residents we asked recounted their initial horror of the facade of the restaurant, and most still found it difficult to like it.

“It just looks so weird, so out of place with the surroundings. I can’t even say it is beautiful or ugly,” says Zhang Jie, a lady in her 40s who lives across the road.

Perhaps it is time to draw back and look at the landscape more objectively. What kind of architectural achievements are we looking at that best suit China’s rapid urbanization?

Many domestic architects finger two landmark buildings as antithesis of the case in point: One is the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai and the other is the CCTV Tower in Beijing’s CBD. These two landmarks represent the best and worst in blending East with West, ancient and modern, and form and function.

Designed by SOM architects from Chicago, the Jin Mao skyscraper imitates an elegant Suzhou ancient tower and is highly functional at the same time, a fact lauded by experts and appreciated by Shanghai residents.

In contrast, design critics say the new CCTV building by Dutch master Rem Koolhaas has “humiliated the Chinese” by its irreverent resemblance to a pair of boxer shorts, and its exorbitant price tag of five billion yuan ($783.80 million).

“China is not so rich that we do not need to count the cost. We need real and practical solutions,” says Wu. “I hope none of my students will ever propose such irresponsible designs for a developing country.”

Some Chinese architects have heeded the clarion call to rediscover traditional architecture influences.

Liu Xiaodu of Urbanus Architects created an urban tulou (earth fortress) in Guangzhou, modeled after the circular fortified structures built by the Hakka people in Yongding, in neighboring Fujian province.

His work successfully addressed how the old vernacular can provide inspiration for modern low income housing that has a strong communal focus, and improves the lives of migrants in urban enclaves in China today.

Wu Xuefu, a professor of design at the Communications University of China, has been traveling with his students all over the country, taking pictures of traditional Chinese residences, and researching and defining Chinese-style aesthetics.

“We believe it is time for China to stop worshipping foreign things and to ‘export’ the best we have to the world. But first, we need to know ourselves better.”

'Cruising on the Huangpu' photo (c) 2009, Bernt Rostad - license:

But in the midst of nationalistic indignation, there is also the other side of the coin. Foreign architects bring maturity of experience and technology. The so-called “foreign invasion” also instigates local talents to take a good look at what they can offer.

Wang Shu, professor of architecture at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), succeeded in wresting the design of the Ningbo Museum from GMP Architects from Germany years ago.

“In the past, Chinese architects did not have the confidence to take up big projects like museums and performing centers. By cooperating with foreign partners, we have taken a big step forward. It is good to have competition so we can grow and look for our own distinctive characteristics,” Wang says.

While building design as a profession has existed for more than 500 years in the West, it has a relatively short history of a mere 30 years in China.

In Asia, we can perhaps look toward Japan, where western-style architecture arrived during the Meiji Restoration of the late 1860s and changed the physical landscape. Although the Meiji rulers began to use Western architects, Japan was careful to keep its culture and strived to preserve that in its modern construction. That paved the way for generations of exceptional Japanese architects such as Kenzo Tange, Kisho Kurukawa, Tadao Ando, Toyo Itob and Kazuyo Sejima.

Wang is optimistic Chinese architects, too, will take their place in international building design, although there is a lot of ground to till. First, there is the age-old question of the education system.

Wang says it is good to see architectural faculties attract more students in recent years, “but increasing the number is not enough, we need to set up our own aesthetic system and educational methods”.

In his classes at the CAFA, Wang emphasizes the importance of Chinese calligraphy as well as Western drawing techniques. His explanation is that “through calligraphy we grasp the Chinese way of perceiving and manipulating space and form”.

He has also called for the government to set up a system of fair competition to allow domestic and foreign design firms equal opportunities.

“Renowned architectural studios from abroad are favored. China cannot cultivate its own talents if such preferences are not abandoned.” And finally, Wang says, the media should stop highlighting odd-looking buildings and give them publicity and attention.


Opinion Poll: November 2011 (Poll Now Closed)

**UPDATE 25th November 2011 – this poll is now closed. Thank you to all who voted. We’ll be looking at the results in detail in our November Monthly Update at the end of the month. We will publish another poll for you all to vote on next month**

This month we would like your opinions on the interview process and how important it is to you to be made to feel wanted or welcome by your potential employer. Whilst an interview is always about ensuring you can demonstrate a relevant set of skills and experiences to a prospective employer, we also want to know what you, as the interviewee, want to get from the meeting.

As always, please take the time to tell us anonymously where you are based.

We will look at the results in our November Monthly Update at the end of the month.

Monthly Update: October 2011

Market News

A number of large construction companies are forecasting the need for many new hires in the coming 5 years with the MTR in Hong Kong predicting that they will need to employ up to 17,000 alone for their five mega projects alone. However, many of these companies are concerned at the skill level of many of these new hires and are encouraging the relevant institutions to do all they can to up train their students to the correct levels.

'Bridge' photo (c) 2010, Max W - license:

Huaxi, a village in China of some 2000 registered inhabitants, was in the news this month as it put the finishing touches to a 328m super tower. Mixing hospitality, commercial and exhibition space, the centre also includes a 1 tonne solid gold ox in it’s 60th floor lobby!

Home prices in the suburbs of China’s main cities are declining as property developers lower their asking prices to increase their cash flows. The decrease has caused some outrage for early buyers who are now seeing property similar to that which they own now selling for up to 50% less in some instances. Analysts see the correction in prices continuing in the near term.

'Hong Kong and Kowloon' photo (c) 2008, Rachel So - license:

In Hong Kong, the market for premium office space may finally have peaked after topping the standings worldwide for the last 18 months. Rents are expected to fall next year as firms slow their expansion plans in the region. Right now though, vacancy rates remain the lowest in Asia at just 3.7% and are expected to stay that way for the next few months.

Poll Result

This month we asked our readers how they go about finding a new position. The results can be seen below:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people said they looked for work online and through online advertising medium. In this highly connected world in which we live this is probably to be expected. As a comparison, only a small number (6%) said they responded to written adverts showing perhaps the decline in this area as more people use the internet to search for work, shop and manage their daily lives. An almost equal number of people (26% and 23%) said they often applied to companies regardless of whether they were advertising or used a recruitment consultant. It will be interesting to see if these numbers change if we conduct this poll again perhaps in a year, particular the percentage that use recruitment consultants. We were quite surprised at the relatively small percentage of people (10%) who used their own connections to find work – with networking in Asia being considered an extremely critical part of being successful in the region, we thought that more people would perhaps make use of their contacts to find themselves options.

Thank you again for voting and check back later this month for another poll.

What’s Hot

We have had a recent influx of new positions within the architectural firms in China. The needs remain generally the same with Mandarin language and China experience still rated as important if not essential. We have noticed some firms looking to fill some quite specific positions (e.g. CAD/BIM Managers) and also some firms starting to interview for New Year hires already (both January New Year and Chinese New Year). Quite a few of the design firms are waiting for tenders to come back and many envisage a need to increase headcount once they have received the green light on various schemes. In interior design, needs remain for strong commercial concept designers and mid-senior level hotel designers. Things on the urban design and planning side are a little quieter now that some firms have made some key appointments. However, as always, if there are strong candidates, most firms will generally take a look and meet people.

We also have many more requirements within our developer clients for good project management candidates. Ranging from less experienced PMs through to Project Directors, we have options with many top tier developers for roles in China. Candidates with architectural and design backgrounds are still in extremely high demand and we are working very closely with a couple of niche developers who have some very attractive and slightly different projects on offer. If you are looking for something a little different then we can probably help.

We continue to look for strong engineers and technical staff within our multidisciplinary/engineering clients. Those with M&E backgrounds are of particular interest. We also have a few positions for structural engineers within some smaller consultancies. On the fit out side, we still need some people for a couple of our contractor clients including project managers, engineers and even some health and safety candidates. Corporate office experience would be beneficial with these positions.

Most Urgent Requirements

We have outlined below the urgent vacancies we have had through from clients over the last month.

  • Architects and Project Architects – China – landmark projects and the opportunity to work on the developer side with two of our biggest clients
  • Senior Architects – China – Mandarin speakers for a top international design practice
  • Senior Project Manager – Shanghai – International architecture firm with a publicized project
  • Mid Level Interior Designer – Hotels – Hong Kong – boutique hospitality design firm which has grown in recent months
  • Senior Architect – Abu Dhabi – something slightly different with a great international practice. Team leader needed!
  • BIM/CAD Manager (Revit) – Shanghai – a great opportunity to develop the CAD capability of a world renowned design practice
  • Urban Planners – Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen – multiple roles within a growing award winning design firm. Bilingual candidates only
  • Junior to Mid-Level Architect – Shanghai – to work with the small but growing China office of this acclaimed architecture company.
  • E&M Project Managers – China – top tier Hong Kong developer looking for top tier talent
  • Senior Project Managers – China – multiple roles in multiple locations for our many developer clients

We also have many, many more roles posted on our website and these are only an overview of our top positions at this time. Please check back regularly. The easiest way to stay up to date with our latest positions is to follow us on Twitter.

Please visit our website for more information on the above roles and our other vacancies:

If you wish to enquire about a position please send an email and your CV to

Follow us on Twitter here: Please also subscribe to our blog by filling in the email subscription form on the right to stay up to date with our latest posts, updates and information.

Building Culture: Hong Kong – Spain, Water & Culture – Symposium & Exhibition

On Saturday 12th November 2011, we are supporting an Architectural event being held by The School of Architecture at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), The General Consulate of Spain and International Conference of Architecture (ICOA). Please see the details below – it is going to be a great event! We have also attached a PDF flyer at the bottom of this page with more information on the order for the day.


We would like to inform you that The School of Architecture at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), The General Consulate of Spain and The International Conference of Architecture (ICOA) invite you to attend the architectural symposium Building Culture: “Hong Kong – Spain. Water & Culture”, and opening of the exhibition “Architecture without Paper” on Saturday, November 12th, 2011.

Entrepreneurs, architects, developers, builders from Spain and Hong Kong will join us to present case studies and share experiences relating to Building Culture.

For more details please find attached the information overview of the Symposium and pre-Registration form by clicking on the links. Please register by email to 


Symposium “Hong Kong –Spain. Water & Culture”

Entrepreneurs, architects, developers, builders from Spain and Hong Kong will join us to present case studies and share experiences relating to Building Culture. The symposium gathers current waterfront developments in Hong Kong to be showcased and shared amongst case studies and projects developed by Spanish designers, planners and academics. Hong Kong’s diversity of culture and future developments are constantly transforming, and this symposium offers a productive space for sharing and learning for professionals, academics and students. Organized by School of Architecture (CUHK) and International Conference of Architecture (ICOA) with the collaboration of Acción Cultural Española (AC/E) and sponsored by Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), IE School of Architecture and Design and Lufthansa Swissair, the Symposium Program will include four panels: Building Culture, Designing for diverse communities, Waterfronts and Landscapes, and the future of culture and sustainability for urban design.

  • Date: Saturday 12th November 2011
  • Time: 09:00-18:00
  • Venue: Lecture Theatre LT 1, G/F Cheng Yu Tung Building, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

RSVP In order to reserve your seat for the symposium, please pre-register with the attached form (in the PDF) by email to or Fax: +852 2603 5267.

For enquiries please contact Ms. Kam Ka Man, School of Architecture, CUHK at .


Spanish Exhibition of Architecture: “Architecture without paper”

Presented by Consulate General of Spain, Agency for International Cooperation and Development (AECID), Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Spain. Curated by Javier Maroto and Alvaro Soto.

  • Date: Opening Reception on Saturday 12.11.2011
  • Time: 6:15pm
  • Exhibition Period: 11.11.2011 – 20.11.2011, 9:00-21:00
  • Venue: Entrance Lobby, G/F Cheng Yu Tung Building, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

For enquiries please contact Ms. Menchu Miguelez, Consulate General of Spain,


Architecture Symposium and Exhibition