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China laborers don’t always fit blueprint

Marketplace Staff Aug 26, 2008

China laborers don’t always fit blueprint

Marketplace Staff Aug 26, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: Now that the Olympics are done, life in Beijing can get back to normal. Even though you’d think that after seven straight years of getting ready for the Games all the construction would be done, that’s not the case. Buildings are still going up all over China. That means a lot of opportunities for international architecture firms, like the ones that designed the Birds Nest and Water Cube.

Big budgets and cheap labor are fueling the growth. But with all the opportunity comes a bit of risk. Lisa Chow reports from Beijing.

LISA CHOW: OK, so here are some of the problems for architects working in China:

Sometimes you get plaster when you wanted stucco, because you’re
working in translation.

Chinese contractors may use lower grades of glass and stone without
your knowing to save money.

And cheap migrant labor has its drawbacks.

JASON ANDERSON: You have people who just showed up and found a job and they’re working but they don’t have a lot of experience.

Jason Anderson is an architect in Beijing.

ANDERSON: And there’s not a lot of people here to teach them really. You get handed some tools and told to do something.

Anderson works for the New York firm Steven Holl Architects. He walks me through the firm’s first project to be completed in China. It’s one of the most talked about residential complexes going up in Beijing right now, with 750 super-luxurious apartments, a movie theatre and school.

The towers of the complex are linked by bridges at the top floors.

ANDERSON: The first bridge has a gym. The second bridge, that has a swimming pool in it.

Yeah. A suspended swimming pool, weighing about 800 tons. And that’s the challenge — achieving world-class architecture in a country that’s still developing.

Silas Chiow is China director for the Chicago-based firm S.O.M. He says Chinese contractors don’t always appreciate architects’ meticulous attention to detail.

Silas Chiow: I’ve gone to construction sites before where even the supervisor really doesn’t read the drawings. That’s why in China a lot of these buildings are almost like a trial-and-error situation when you’re building them.

The architects do think the buildings are safe, but they say the time pressure to get stuff done in China does affect quality and aesthetics.

CHIOW: What took Manhattan about 120 years to build, China is doing it, for Beijing and for Shanghai, it’s doing it in the last 20 years. So at that speed, there’s going definitely to be

China isn’t the only place in the world where cities are being built

Architect Gordon Gill has done a lot of work in China, but now he’s
turning his focus to places like Dubai, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi, where
real estate is booming.

Gordon Gill: In the Middle East, the return for rentals and sales are tremendous. And things go very quickly. Buildings of 400 units will sell out in a day or two.

Gill says with this type of demand, the biggest risk in Dubai is also
quality control. But so far, it has been a very financially rewarding environment for developers and architects.

GILL: It’s kind of a rare case, where in both China and the Middle East you’re having a huge influx of intellectual capital come into those places to make those cities and make those countries better. I think we’ll look back over time and we’ll see things that aren’t quite so good and we’ll look back and see examples that have been set that really form the way cities are made in the future.

And so when the money and opportunities are there, you take the good
with the bad.

In Beijing, I’m Lisa Chow, for Marketplace.

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