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Shanghai calling: a question of specialisms

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The vast amount of construction in China makes for highly specialised roles, writes student Eleanor Jolliffe

For the last month I have been doing some work for the interior design team in my office. I was surprised to find that instead of the furniture and colour schemes I had been expecting I have been specifying doors and windows, detailing bathrooms and drawing electrical layouts. It seems that in China architects have a very specialised role and hand the specifications, detailing and space planning over to interior designers.

The architect will mainly focus on facade and curb appeal

As my current team leader speaks English very well, and studied for a while in London, I have been able to ask her more about the design process - and how it differs from the UK. According to her, each role in the construction process is much more specialised than in the UK. The architect will design the basic shape of the internal spaces and external context but mainly focus on facade and curb appeal. (First impressions count for a lot in China, the face you present to the world is very important. This is not only true of buildings - luxury brands are de-rigour for China’s middle classes.)

After the basic shape and layout of the building has been decided the interior architecture is handed over to the interior designer and the external environment to a landscape designer. This is the point at which structural engineers, M&E and environmental engineers (if used) also chip in. The design may go backwards and forwards between the architects and the other teams as the client offers feedback or design problems are encountered.

Every building must use a Local Design Institute

In addition to this each area in China has a Local Design Institute (LDI) which is responsible for the construction drawings and project management on site. Every building project must use an LDI, and it must be the LDI local to the site, rather than local to the architect’s office. The architect still maintains essential control over the building’s design but is rarely responsible for the project management of the construction or day-to-day decisions on site.

The LDIs are often architects’ offices which do not design their own work but specialise in the realisation of other architects’ designs. They are often integrated with, or linked to, universities or architecture schools.

This system works in China as the vast amount of construction both allows for and necessitates these highly specialised roles. In the UK and Europe I do not think there are enough building projects of a sufficient scale to allow for this. Indeed at university we were told that the future of architecture was likely to lie increasingly in more multidisciplinary skills and integrated practices. There seems to be both strengths and weaknesses to both systems. The highly specialised professionals of China will become expert in their fields and excel at what they do, whereas the Europeans with their broader understanding may be able to design with a more integrated approach.

The streamlined design we are so fond of in the west looks half-finished to many Chinese

I suppose the proof of the pudding will be in the finished results - and there are triumphs and disasters in both camps. One of the joys and main frustrations in architecture is in its subjectivity - and I am quickly realising that what is appreciated in China would be thought odd, tacky or even pastiche in Europe; whereas the elegant and streamlined design we are so fond of in the west looks half-finished to many Chinese.

During my experience so far, I have found a great deal of joy in designing an entire building and integrating my western aesthetic and spatial priorities with the client’s more Chinese taste. However what I did not expect - and have discovered this week - is how much joy can be found in a really fantastic shadow gap door frame detail! Personally I feel that where east and west meet could be where the solution lies. There is so much we could learn from each other. For me this immersion in Chinese practice is a very valuable experience - I am always learning, and as I learn more about the language and culture new insights into design and method reveal themselves. I also appreciate the opportunity it is giving me to question the value of the design and methods of the west. I don’t believe that I have all, or indeed any, of the answers yet; and I believe it may take more than the year I have in China to find them. Still, I suppose it is not without reason that the profession of architecture is referred to as ‘practice’.

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

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