After many years working in China, Charlie Sutherland of Sutherland Hussey Harris observes that the superpower is no longer in thrall to overseas expertise
We would often joke in our office that we were fast becoming an architectural sweatshop in the UK, servicing China. However, it is now clear that the skills and knowledge transfer to which this refers is almost entirely complete.
The almost total reversal of China’s relationship with the West was underlined in George Osborne’s recent trade mission, culminating with him touting for Chinese skills, expertise and cash from within the desperately poor and troubled Uighur region. It’s a long way from the heady days of Tony Blair’s trade mission in 2006, when he led an entourage of the best of British design and expertise, who were courted in the glitziest corners of Shanghai and Beijing.
China holds a much more circumspect attitude to the West
We are clearly now in a period when China holds a far more measured and circumspect attitude to the West, perhaps fermented by the excessive pandering of local politicians to the many Western ‘experts’ practising all around China and the rather unpleasant aftertaste of the excess resulting from this unquestioning trust.
In his ‘weird buildings’ speech at the party congress in 2014, President Xi Jinping vocalised a rising undercurrent of middle-class resentment towards what was seen as an abuse of this trust manifest through many recently completed exotic buildings (by Western architects). One of the most significant moments seen to ferment this was Rem Koolhaas describing, in an interview in China, how the form of his CCTV headquarters mimicked a frozen act of fellatio.
The outrage that followed was visible particularly in young urbanites, and the climate changed almost overnight, signalling a new reality fuelled by a much stronger self-belief and inner confidence, along with a rising sense of nationalism and a general feeling of having been duped by degenerate ‘Western devils’.
This is a much more inward-looking administration, with a Maoist-inspired ethos, yet with a real awareness of the dangers of dissent and unrest fermenting in both the urban middle classes and the rural poor, who are incensed by the rampant corruption largely fuelled by land-grabbing local administrations. A range of policy directives, along with the biggest political purge in a generation, has ensured a political class that will now reverse the past urbanisation policies and look to redirect its energies to the rural poor and to stemming the flow of migrants to the big cities by the regeneration of smaller conurbations.
Following the pro-democracy movement, Shanghai has been set on a course to rival Hong Kong as the financial centre of Asia, but other cities, such as Beijing, are planned to actually reduce in size. A real concern for environmental issues, prompted by the ever-increasing and appalling effects of pollution and a renewed respect for Chinese culture and heritage, has redirected energies from the wholesale destruction and rebuilding of districts to preservation and renewal.
Cities like Beijing are planned to actually reduce in size
There is a general focus on redirecting spending to stimulate these cities’ internal economies and to develop clean, rather than heavy, industries. All roads appear to be moving away from the dependence on an economy based on ever-expanding cities and the huge speculation this generated.
These policy changes have had a major impact on investment in property from both developers and private investors. The market in wine, art and antiques preceded the recent bubble in the stock market, largely inflated by the huge private cash reserves accumulated internally (generally through property speculation) and trapped within China as a result of currency controls. Equally the larger developers, which are state-owned and therefore able to move money abroad, have recently turned their focus to the overseas market, buying oven-ready sites all over the world, and developing infrastructure projects in Africa.
The cumulative result of these shifts in policy and attitude has had a major effect on the way many Western architects now work in China. Despite the ethical and human rights concerns, it was always felt that so long as China was engaging and opening up to Western business relationships and practice, progress on these issues would be an inevitable consequence, and that being involved was in a small way helping to effect change.
The irony now is that, despite the government’s efforts to tackle inequality, environmental issues, corruption and the plight of the rural poor, the recent introspective stance has made the argument of engagement seem very hollow. This is underlined by evidence of a much more severe approach to dissent in the media, the internet and general freedom of speech.
On reflection, even my practice’s relationship with China over the past 10 years has largely followed the trajectory of this evolving political climate. When we first started our collaboration with a young Beijing practice in 2007, it was with great excitement and tremendous fanfare that we won the international competition in Chengdu for one of the largest city museums in the world today.
Our completed museum will be officially opened next month, but we are still awaiting an invitation to the opening. The fact that our client and the city governor are currently in jail as a result of the anti-graft crackdown may have something to do with this.