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Coronavirus: UK architects caught up in China outbreak

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Architects working in China have spoken of widespread disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is currently advising against all travel to Hubei Province and all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China, not including Hong Kong and Macao.

Among the practices with current work in China is Chetwoods Architects, which is designing the Phoenix Towers project in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, where the virus first broke out.

Chetwoods staff have been travelling to the country for regular meetings on the The Phoenix Towers scheme, but it is not known when they will now be able to return there. ‘We go out every other month – a team of four architects – but fortunately all our lot came back two weeks ago,’ a Chetwoods spokesman said.

The next trip to China was due at the end of February but this was now on hold. A Chinese delegation coming to the UK to discuss high-rise projects in Shanghai and Beijing had also cancelled their trip due to the virus, he said.

Chetwoods is also concerned about a major garden show the practice is involved with that may be ‘scuppered’ by the outbreak.

Last week the Chinese government imposed further restrictions on movement within China in response to the outbreak. Some airlines, including British Airways, have suspended flights to and from mainland China. Other commercial airlines are still operating, but it may become harder over the coming weeks for those who wish to leave China to do so, the FCO advises.

John Curran, owner of John Curran Architects, has been based in Shanghai for 16 years. He has been attempting to fly to Dublin with his wife on business. His original flight with KLM was cancelled and he was forced to reroute through Gatwick using Chinese Eastern Airlines. He described the scene in Shanghai as ‘surreal’. He said: ‘Shanghai is a city of 25 million people, but the streets are now mostly deserted; anyone venturing outside wears a mask.’

He said the virus had had a big impact on the practice’s work. ‘My team were working from home, but this is not efficient, not a co-ordinated way of working, so I have told them it’s tools down for next 10 days and simply wait this out. It’s having a financial impact on us.

’My local government clients have been very understanding and contract deadlines have been postponed.’

In contrast, he said, private developer clients are less forgiving and on these projects his practice will have to make up for lost time somehow.

‘My wife’s family are from Shiyan in Hubei province,’ he said. ‘My wife’s brother in Shiyan describes a complete shutdown of companies and public transport, and this is probably the situation across the entire province.’

In contrast in Shanghai a reduced public transport service is still running, including the metro and taxis. Curran said: ‘There is a spirit of camaraderie, with people checking on neighbours, bringing supplies to the elderly. The Chinese are a very kind and resilient people.’

Zaha Hadid Architects released the following statement: ‘The health and wellbeing of all our employees is our priority. Our office in Beijing is currently closed for the Lunar New Year holiday and we remain in contact with each member of staff based in China. Following advice from the authorities in China and the UK, we have postponed any travel to the affected areas until further advised. Team members who have recently returned from these areas are currently working from home.’

Meanwhile Foster + Partners has four offices in China – in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. A spokesperson said the practice had issued instructions to them all about how to respond to the virus outbreak.

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