The Chinese are coming

Ellis Woodman

Ellis Woodman - editor

With Chinese firms beginning to crack London, is the balance of the industry about to shift?

The news that Shanghai-based practice Neri & Hu has won its first major commission in London will send a shiver down the spines of many British architects. After years in which China has offered a much-needed source of work to UK practices, is this perhaps the moment when the tables begin to turn – when Chinese practices start to see the UK as a potential market?

Already one of the other competitors on the Bow Street Magistrates Court competition has complained that the Shanghai firm was able to clinch the job only because it undercut the fee bids of every London practice in contention by a dramatic margin.

It is an argument that recalls the complaints of London’s computer visualisation firms when Beijing-based Crystal Digital Technology began to pursue work aggressively in the UK a couple of years ago. With a minimally waged staff of 2,200 and coffers deep enough to stump up sponsorship for the Stirling Prize and the London 2012 Olympic Games, Crystal has effectively laid waste to this once thriving UK industry.

To characterise Neri & Hu’s expansion into London as mere empire building would, however, be somewhat wide of the mark. Amanda Baillieu wrote about the practice’s remarkable Waterhouse hotel in Shanghai for these pages only last month. As partner Lyndon Neri explained to her at the time: “There’s not a lack of clients [in China]. There is a lack of design-led clients who are open-minded.

In China, clients want something tangible that they can see, like Louis Vuitton all over the bag – it has a very clear meaning, it’s tangible.”

For ambitious Chinese practices, the impulse to break into Europe may therefore be more creative than commercial in motivation. As Ole Scheeren said last year when he announced that he was setting up a London operation to complement his Beijing and Hong Kong bases: “There are no economic reasons whatsover. If it was purely about economics, I would stick to Asia.”

For Chinese practices, the impulse to break into Europe may be more creative than commercial

The fact that Scheeren and Neri & Hu’s practices are the first Chinese firms to establish a presence in the UK no doubt has much to do with their directors’ personal histories. Scheeren is German-born, London-educated and was a director for a number of years at OMA. While Chinese by birth, Neri and Rosanna Hu were educated in America and worked for Michael Graves before establishing their practice in 2005. Those experiences will have given them a privileged sense of the different creative possibilities that are enabled by practice in China and the West. Neither clearly is ideal and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that an increasing number of Chinese practices decide that they want to fish in both pools.

Given the commercial lifeline that China has represented to so many British architects in recent years, it would be churlish to resent the relatively few Chinese firms that will choose to pursue work here. There is a threat on the horizon, but it lies not in a wave of Chinese practices crashing on to these shores but in British practices being deemed surplus to requirements in China.

As the case of Neri & Hu makes only too clear, the Chinese are now producing highly skilled architects of their own. The real question is: how much longer will they have a
need for ours?

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