Mapping Architectural Practice in Beijing

By Hao Dong and Binke Lenhardt

There are various forms of architectural practice in the Chinese market. This essay highlights the ongoing role of not yet privatized government design or planning institutes, and of partly or fully privatized firms, originating out of these institutes. The text also considers emerging, smaller independent architectural offices. We will also look at the foreign design practices in China, focusing on the government requirement for collaboration with local design institutes.

Forms of Practices
In contemporary China, architectural design enterprises exist in various forms, scales, administrative formats and financial arrangements. Emerging out of the 1979 economic reforms, the monopolies of state owned institutes are now in competition with emerging local private design firms and foreign design firms, leading to the situation that some design institutes transformed into partly private owned businesses. Meanwhile, as the result of government encouragement to start private businesses, increasingly more private design firms are appearing on the market.

State owned Architectural Design Institutes
Previously, the Chinese state owned design institutes were responsible for the design of infrastructure, industry plants and civil buildings – a model that reproduced the USSR system. The nation assigned different design institutes according to specific needs – for example, the Chemical Facility Design Institute, Light Industry Facility Design Institute, Railway Infrastructure Design Institute, etc. Architectural design institutes are just a part of this system of design institutes. Each institute can deliver a comprehensive and independent design, since they have their own in-house architects and engineers. Administratively, such institutes belong to the relevant government ministry, incorporating architectural design institutes into the Construction Ministry.

Before the 1990s, all architecture design institutes were state-owned and were the only legal entities for practicing design. Design projects were commissioned by the central government directly based on the national-wide logistic and economic central planning. The concept of participating in a competition did not exist at all. Even before the late 1980s, the idea of a design fee was not introduced to the design institutes since previously all institutes only needed to implement the annual quota allocated by central government.

Today, the government owned design institutes generate about 98% of national production and private owned firms implement approximately 5% of the production, but the latter attract much greater publicity within western media.

From Architectural Design Institutes to Partial or Fully Privatized Firms or Enterprises
This category consists of design offices who have had their licenses transferred from previously government owned design institutes. Regarding the proprietorship, they are either completely or partly privatized. These firms operate on a rather large scale in terms of size and with regard to the market share, where they are also very competitive.

Private Firms, Architectural Offices, Ateliers, Studios
Private firms in China didn’t exist until the mid-nineties. Atelier Feichang Jianzhu, founded by Yonghe Zhang, was the first private architectural practice in China. From 2000 onwards, a significant number of private design firms entered the market and are concentrated in the major metropolitan areas – Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, etc.

These firms are formed by a celebrity architect or several partners. From the start, these firms focused on an experimental design strategy in order to establish their market niche. After a century of Chinese functionalistic and technical based education, experimental models in the late nineties provided considerable stimulation for the architecture and design professions, even if most of those designs were deeply influenced by contemporary western architectural trends.

Some firms developed out of companies initially founded by people with foreign education. The size of the office can vary from 4 to 30 employees. In terms market-share, many are struggling on the margins of the primary markets due to a number of factors, e.g. acceptance by the public, ability of project realization, reputation, etc. Although their percentage of market share is rather small, they did achieve substantial media publicity and exposure in China and even more so in the West, which perceived such develops as part of China’s neo-avant-garde. But what is the basis for such recognition, praise and promotion? Is the West that dried up as a reservoir of innovative design and architectural practice? Is China the new Japan? Or is this just another form of Western self-aggrandizement, albeit shunted through the subjectivity of Chinese architects who have cultivated Western personas, habits and design sensibilities?

A lot of these young architectural offices and studios consist of principal architects with working and studying experience abroad, which makes for smoother relations with and points of access for foreign architects. Previously established connections with foreign architectural media are a further benefit to these offices, enabling them to communicate with the ‘outside world’. And of course such connections also result in better self-promotional strategies than local architectural offices or design institutes. Nonetheless, is transnational communication the precondition to initiating an active exchange of ideas or does it simply offer more publicity and recognition without any guarantees of conceptual substance and design capability?

Foreign Practices
There have been foreign architects practicing in China since the 14th century. Prior to 1949, many western architects had their design works built in China. After 1949, due to political circumstances, the concept and ideology of western architecture was substituted by Russian schematics for the built environment. After the break-up with Russia, China became totally closed to outside influences, creating a vacuum of foreign practice until the reforms at the end of the 1970s.

Since the early 1990s, foreign practices began to trickle in to domestic market in China. Most of these were Hong Kong or American based commercial firms involved in projects without a necessarily a high profile. In 1998, the first open international competition for the Grand Opera in Beijing was a turning point for foreign architectural practices operating in China. In the wake of the competition, won by the French architect Paul Andreu, a wave of foreign architects entered the Chinese architectural market. Following that, the Olympic stadium and CCTV tower, to name just two of the more famous developments, registered the increasing presence of foreign practice in China.

The Question of Generations
Even though the Chinese practice can be identified according to the four groups discussed above, there is also another obvious way to categorize the architects: age or generation. The age-groups of active Chinese architects consist of people born in the 50s, 60s and 70s. No matter where they currently work, architects more or less carry the mark of their generation in terms of professional education, ideology, political attitude, etc. Cui Kai, the star architect working in China Architectural Design and Research Group (CADREG), and Yonghe Zhang, the Dean of the School of Architecture at MIT, were both born in the 1950s and ended up in very different practices. Most of the so-called Chinese avant-garde architects were born in the 1960s – Pei Zhu, Hui Wang and Yan Meng (Urbanus), to name the most prominent examples. Ma Yansong (MAD) is the representative of younger architects born in 1970s who have become successful.

There is a discussion still to be had about how an even younger generation will be characterized in terms of creativity. Compared to the older generations, the younger generation is even more exposed to transnational cultural flows and had less overt political pressures during their youth. Will such conditions lead to even earlier career success or fuel such ambitions? Some might be optimistic but others are arguing that without the political and social concerns of previous generations it will take much longer for the younger generation to be a publicly influential force. But then when have the creative industries even been receptive to political conditions and experiences anyway? One only needs to consider that highly insecure, demanding and (self-)exploitative forms of work are the norm to realize that creative industries thrive on excluding the political.

Hao Dong (China) and Binke Lenhardt (Germany) are Beijing-based architects, and each hold an MA in Architecture from the Pratt Institute, New York. In addition to working in one of the biggest state-owned design enterprises, Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD) since 2003, in 2005 they co-founded the practice crossboundaries architects, based in Berlin and Beijing. They regularly teach design studios at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). In 2008, the ‘International Studio’ directed by Hao Dong was established within BIAD for a more open design platform.