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Shanghai Calling: from Shanghai to Nottingham

Student writer Eleanor Jolliffe returns from practice in China to start her Part two at Nottingham

Fourteen months, three countries, ten projects, nineteen flights, countless hours of overtime, four building sites - there are so many numbers I could use to describe my time in China but, returning to the UK, none of them do justice to what I have seen and experienced.

Beginning to glimpse architectural design and spatial priorities from outside my native cultural framework has led to some interesting insights and experiences. The opportunities I have had to observe and learn from how people use and respond to form, space, and colour throughout China, Taiwan, and Cambodia has significantly affected the way I respond to these aspects myself.

In China, one of the key aspects of practice is adaptability. Each project and client has vastly different briefs and expectations. In general Chinese clients do not respond to the linear working process of western architects that leads to a single ‘ideal’ solution. They would prefer to be presented with ten options from which to pick their favourite parts. It made me question, to some extent, the relatively linear working process in the west. My experience of the Chinese approach led to some interesting solutions that may not have surfaced in a linear process, that were ultimately very successful. It has also led to some dreadful designs that make me wince to remember them.

Returning to the UK has been a reverse culture shock. My first impression when arriving back in England was how small and clean everything was. A visit to London, once so massive in my mind, came as a shock. The built landscape of three to five storeys felt too low, the sky too present for a capital city that takes itself seriously on a global stage.

The famously ‘quaint’ and ‘cute’ adjectives applied to English architecture by foreigners are beginning to make sense. After a year of Asian airports Gatwick felt like a backwater, and even the M25 seemed miniature.

England does however feel more established than China - the architecture seems more embedded into its context. The triumph of European architecture is not its scale - we don’t tend to have the land or resources for that - but its sensitivity and attention to detail. We rarely have the opportunity to ‘wow’ from afar and so European architecture tends to delight in the detail.

Returning to England, and to University for my Part two, has been much more difficult than I had anticipated. I miss the life, noise and even the smells of Shanghai. On grey and rainy days England feels cold, sterile and the lack of people make it feel as if it were closed for business.

Much of the time China was frustrating and difficult, much of it seemed illogical and bordering on illegal, and spending too much of your formative architectural experience in its environment may not be entirely healthy or advisable. However, where else would you get the opportunity to build, to run your own project within six months of graduating from Part one, or to challenge your cultural framework so thoroughly?

Whatever its faults China is a massive, complex and endlessly fascinating place - and one that will, I think, only increase in architectural impact and authority in times to come. 

  • Eleanor Jolliffe has recently returned from an internship in Shanghai. She is completing her Part two at Nottingham University.

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