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paul hyett

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Shanghai diary: abundant lessons about co-operation we could use in the west; 'The strength of the collective will is really quite extraordinary, producing a level of output ... that simply astounds.'

I am filing this column from our new office in Shanghai. I was last here in July, during the rainy season, which lasts for around seven weeks. As storm drains block, water frequently cascades from the upper level of the two-tier freeways that scythe through the city. Fluorescent lights fuse and shower sparks down onto the lush vegetation, cars and cyclists below. Roads flood with grim regularity but still the city continues its relentless progress.

This time the weather is dry, but the sky is heavily overcast. Looking out from our 15th-floor window, new commercial blocks rise from the old Shanghai with an unnerving boldness. Across the Huang Pu river, the Oriental Pearl tower stands at 468m on its tripod legs. Aptly listed as a 'dated stab at the future' by Cedric Price in 'notes from Shanghai' (aj 8.1.99), the top of the building hasn't been seen for days - it simply vanishes above the clouds. Around its base, forming the rest of the Pudong area, are a series of commercial towers - the Mori Building, the Chinese Customs Building, the World Finance Tower, the Communication Bank Building, the Jinmao Centre, and the International Meeting Centre being amongst the most elegant.

The World Financial Centre by American architect Kohn Pedersen Fox is apparently still 'on hold'. When built, it will become the world's tallest building.

But these things you probably already know - so let me tell you something of the experiences of setting up an office in this city. Travel is easy: Virgin flies non-stop and with a seven-hour summer time lag, I can leave Shanghai in the afternoon and get to London for supper.

To short circuit the logistical problems involved in establishing local human and physical resources, we formed a joint venture with a Shanghai/Hong Kong firm. Resolving computer communication links with the uk was initially a struggle, but systems are now fully compatible, enabling the immediate and continuous daily exchange of infor-mation between London and Shanghai. This is crucial as there simply isn't time for 'hard copy' exchange - things move too fast here.

And that brings me to the issue of staff and training. The development of a commercially aggressive office is essentially self-motivated. Gone are the implicit design team/client/contractor divides so familiar in the uk. Non-existent is the suspicion and cynicism that so often frustrates progress and fuels the ensuing, seemingly inevitable, contractor claims.

Powerful is the objectiveness, the will to deliver, the desire to complement architectural skills with marketing and management skills.

Twenty-three year-olds assure me of personal satisfaction with their 'time management', but ask that I monitor trial 'client presentations' so they can hone this skill. Their ambition and purpose energises the firm, and what they (momentarily) lack in experience is compensated for by commitment and initiative. And then there is the co-operation: the strength of the collective will is really quite extraordinary, producing a level of output among teams so young that simply astounds.

These people embrace the future with enormous optimism and with a responsibility that again amazes. Environmental sustainability is now taught in primary and secondary schools and problems of ecology, which the Chinese are increasingly understanding, will soon be addressed head on, I suspect. When that happens, the so-called 'developed' world, whose capacity to temper its reckless and irresponsible lifestyle is so limited by short-term economic policies and instinctive resistance to change, will really be shown what sustainable city-living is all about.

And then I guess, the west will suffer the supreme indignity of a Chinese demand for change from us, their irresponsible and ecologically unsociable neighbours.

And one last story: in anticipation of year 2000 computer problems, the Chinese government has instructed every airline chief to take his company's first flight of the next millennium. That time-honoured British tradition of blaming the troops just doesn't work here.

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