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BSF is alive and well... in China

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There is an insatiable demand for British architecture in Chinese schools, and the Building Schools for the Future model is a being used as its template, says Ben Somner

This week’s state visit from Xi Jinping undoubtedly marks a ‘golden era’ in Sino-British economic relations, with the floodgates ready to be lifted on billions of pounds of inward investment.

As architects, of course this is likely to have many advantages here in the UK. But as China moves increasingly centre stage in the global economy, and as we tie the knot with our ally in the east, what does this actually mean for the demand of Western architecture? Indeed what does it mean for Western architects in China?

Charlie Sutherland’s recent AJ piece on how the Chinese are falling out of love with Western architecture in their cities is correct to a point. However, we are seeing growing appetite in one sector in particular: education.

On Thursday (22 October), during his state visit, Xi commented on how Chinese and British schools are exchanging ideas to better their respective education systems. From an architectural perspective, we are finding British design is playing a large role in shaping how the Chinese think about international schools and educational institutions as a whole.

Demand for British-curriculum schools is huge. In 2000 there were only 22 English Language International Schools (ELIS) in China. Today there are almost 500. This incredible growth is in itself a British success story, merging aspects of education, branding and soft power. Broadway Malyan Shanghai alone has just won its fifth international or independent school commission of the last three years, and the growth of the sector is staggering.

Dipont School Hangzhou by Broadway Malyan - competition image

Dipont School Hangzhou by Broadway Malyan - competition image

Despite constant stories of Chinese students outperforming their British counterparts, the British education system is largely considered in China to be the best in the world. Images of Oxbridge, and even Hogwarts, have a profound effect on the Chinese imagination.

British schools are revered for their history and heritage, and having the name of a prestigious British school attached to an institution can be a key differentiator, with parents keen to buy into ‘the brand’. A Broadway Malyan repeat client, Dulwich College, has blazed this trail, with its international arm setting up schools across Asia.

But I don’t believe it is as simple as ‘branding’ or the perceived quality resulting from the longevity of a brand. I believe British architects are benefiting from a chapter in our more recent history.

The Building Schools for the Future (BSF) investment programme from the 2000s – focusing on constructing and improving school buildings – fell by the wayside in the UK due to spiralling costs and mismanagement. In Asia however, British architects now have the opportunity to implement many innovative ideas and strategies initiated during the BSF years, and are therefore rightly at the forefront of designing these modern and forward-thinking institutions.

These collaborative, BSF-inspired learning environments combine ICT and virtual learning with traditional Chinese curriculum delivery and British academic pedigree to create a powerful new product.

In China, a new typology is emerging. Broadway Malyan’s second project for Dipont Education represents an interesting evolution in Chinese school design.

For the growing affluent middle classes, many of whom aspire to see their children study abroad, there was an obvious gap in the market and Dipont has responded, establishing a new breed of school. The model essentially offers two schools within a shared campus: an ELIS and a Chinese school, where many facilities are shared and Chinese students are able to interact with their international counterparts.

In this growing and hugely rewarding sector our main challenge is producing an architectural vision that embodies the ethos of a school, but also shows an understanding of, and sensitivity towards, local customs and culture. It is a challenge we, as British architects, have risen to – sustaining and increasing demand for a highly desirable product. 

To cite this week’s China Design Week, hosted by the China-Britain Business Council, and to consider again Charlie Sutherland’s view, it is clear we are witnessing a move from being made in China to being created in China.

But the unique design expertise of British architects remains an important cultural export – one that is very much alive and growing.

Ben Somner is associate director at Broadway Malyan


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