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Shanghai Calling: beware the false sense of security

Student Eleanor Jolliffe is settling into her new working life in China but communication is a challenge

I’ve been in China for about six weeks now and I am beginning to decipher how life is structured, most notably in the office. There are some major differences – alongside enough similarities that mean I can get drawn into a false sense of security.

I have been particularly struck by the differences in responsibilities here. The office structure is, on the face of it, like any in the UK with directors, associates, architects and then assistants (known as interns).

Being part of a large firm with a varied portfolio, my office is divided into specialised teams including one of landscape designers and another of structural and M&E engineers.

As a Part I assistant in the UK I would have expected to spend a lot of time drafting and tweaking with very little, if any, design work. However, from day one in Shanghai I have been responsible for the design of two facilities buildings

As a Part I assistant in the UK I would have expected to spend a lot of time drafting and tweaking with very little, if any, design work.

However, from day one in Shanghai I have been responsible for the design of two facilities buildings (in total around 15,000m²) as part of a 396,000m² technology corporation headquarters. I am answering directly to the project architect and one of the directors.

According to friends also working in China this is more usual than unusual. I believe this increased responsibility at lower levels is a direct result of the higher workload and tighter deadlines of Chinese firms.

The registered architects here, on top of their design work, oversee the work of the interns – and they are somewhat like my tutors at university, if rather more practically minded.

Meanwhile the project architect and directors ensure that the overall vision is coherent across the scheme. There is a hierarchy here just as clearly defined as in the UK – except the tier I expected to start on seems to be missing!

Most design work in my office is undertaken with a mixture of Sketch-Up and AutoCAD, working simultaneously in plan and 3D before the sections and elevations are developed. This is quicker than working with physical models and while I miss the hand sketches and card models of my time at university I can fully appreciate the need to develop, visualise and share designs quickly.  

A key difference between here and the UK is in regulations and navigating bureaucracy

A key difference between here and the UK is in regulations and navigating bureaucracy. The little experience I have had in the UK was of an ordered and relatively regimented world of logically-ordered RIBA work stages.

Here there’s a more laissez–faire approach. My boss mentioned in passing three design stages (though whether these are his or industry standard I am not sure) of ‘Schematic’, ‘Development’ and ‘Construction’.

In essence this seemed to be fairly familiar – down to the submission of ‘Drawings for the government’ at the Schematic stage – although the drawings we submitted were somewhat less developed than they would have been for UK planning.

However, the next day the function of the two buildings I had been working on was changed and consequently the buildings were completely re-designed. When I questioned my boss about re-submitting the official drawings he replied that this was not necessary – as long as we gave the government a general idea of what we were building that would be fine.

A fellow UK graduate working in Shanghai has come across the same situation and instances of being instructed to ignore site boundaries as ‘that bit of the mountain is better’.

Working in a Chinese practice as opposed to one of the international practices with a base in Shanghai has undeniably been a challenge. At least fifty per cent of the time I am unsure of what is going on and in design team meetings I barely understand ten per cent of the proceedings as only what is directly relevant to me tends to get translated.

I have also been embroiled in some hilarious misunderstandings; such as the time I misread 11 15 as 11:15 rather than the 15th of November and attempted to finish two weeks’ worth of work in an hour….

I have also been embroiled in some hilarious misunderstandings; such as the time I misread 11 15 as 11:15 rather than the 15th of November and attempted to finish two weeks’ worth of work in an hour….

Despite this, the opportunity to see this industry from a foreign perspective is wonderful. Every day I find a small difference in aesthetic and spatial attitudes or design standards that causes me to question what I had taken as read in the UK.

There is an energy here that is infectious and the higher levels of responsibilities lead to great personal investment in the projects. At a large practice in the UK I would have expected to become just another face. Whether it is because my face is a different colour I am not sure, but despite the firm employing more than two hundred people I certainly don’t feel like just another face here.

Eleanor Jolliffe has just completed her Part I at Nottingham University. She is currently doing an internship in Shanghai.This is the third of a series of regular blog posts.

Readers' comments (2)

  • I am in my final year of Architectural Technology, but will be hoping to move into Architecture after graduation. What sort of prospects does a young graduate have in China with training in both fields?

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  • Hi- It is fairly straightforward to find an intern job here (especially if you speak Mandarin and English) but be warned that the pay is very low and the hours can be very long. As a young graduate it would be difficult to find a very well paid job- saying that living here is relatively inexpensive. I am not too sure of the situation for ATs as they are in a different (non-english speaking team) in my company. I think you are likely to need a design portfolio for an architectural job though. All of China seems to be a building site at the moment though so I would imagine your chances are good. Let me know if I can be of any more help. Good Luck!

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