Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
An Australian-based architect with a China-heavy portfolio talks about the differences in building trends between the two countries.
China's builders are by all accounts still in the thralls of a well-documented love affair with international starchitects, but that doesn't mean smaller firms can't compete in the massive, rapidly urbanizing country.
Melbourne-based Studio505 is a good example of one such firm that's transitioned from urban art installations and office buildings in their hometown to cultural centers and hospitals in emerging Asian markets. They've established a particularly strong presence in Changzhou, where they now have a second office.
We caught up with Studio505's Director, Dylan Brady via email to ask him a few questions about his firm, working in China, and what Melbourne expects out of its architecture:
What differences are there in the design process in China as opposed to Australia? Does one process help you with the other?
Chinese design is extremely character driven. Projects are imagined by clients to "put a place on the map" in a more complex way within China itself. Not dissimilar to designing in Australia, our Chinese clients are seeking differentiation and identity. In Australia, we have a rich tradition for designing in a greenfield condition—our cities are young, our ambitions are high, but clients here more and more need to see your last five successful buildings look exactly like the one they want.
In China we can only technically take our design drawings up to a certain stage before handing off to a local architect for completion. We strive to find the perfect partner there, but all jobs are different. With that said, the process of design, approval, and construction is radically shortened. You simply can't undertake a massive public building in Australia and have a competition in one month, and then make an award, and set about drawing and building it in the second.
Do the Chinese have different goals for their public spaces than Australians do?
It is apparent in the work we have done in both countries that the meanings and goals of public space in both countries are essentially the same. But there are specific differences.
Informal public spaces, much more than in Australia, tend to be places of commerce. Communities in China (often without the privatized backyard option) bring this very human interaction to the street and into the public arena. To walk through a park in China at night is to be surrounded by generations of families enjoying their evenings. The same walk in a nighttime park in Australia can raise the hairs on the back of your neck due to their emptiness and your solitude.
That the informal spaces are so vibrant tends to reduce the demand on the public formal spaces, which in China are also extremely tightly monitored, controlled and maintained. At Tiananmen Square you can sense so much power in architecture, a space full of meaning but also hosts an overwhelming scale and sense of emptiness. It is a feeling strangely matched only in my experiences in the outback of Australia.
In the firm’s eyes, what is 21st century Chinese architecture? Is it genuinely Chinese? Is it an aesthetic of globalism?
China has being playing catch-up with the west in many areas over the past few decades. This has led to the desire to either import western talent or imitate the west as a method of getting on a level playing field with the rest of the world.
As they catch up with the west, the need for mimicry will most likely fade. Whether this means a return to historical styles or a new one is hard to tell. China does love its representation and symbolism, but there is a growing young population who discount much of the spiritual and historical traditions.
Our projects in China try to create contemporary statements that establish their own relevance with the usage pattern and scale of Chinese spaces. In our most famous project there, the Suzhou Science and Culture Center, has a facade inspired by the traditional Suzhou timber window but brought very much into the 21st century with its stylization and manufacturing technique.
We have recently established an office in Changzhou and are in China to form partnerships that we hope lasts through the day China finds its own style for the future. The new aesthetic will undoubtedly come within the next 88 years. However, rather than settling down into a neat style, it will continue to irritatingly shift and morph.
One of your projects, Pixel, is billed as the office of the future. How so?
Pixel set out to be a building that provided a space for showing people that you could build and operate a sustainable building without it being sustainably styled. We set out with the team to build Australia’s first carbon neutral office building.
We also set out to build something that would be able to support green roofs, rainwater supplied toilets, showers, basins and sinks for 80 people, without any connection to the main water supply. Pixel has just been rated as the highest ever scored office building in the LEED rating tool. This rating of 105 points from a possible 110 is better than the previous highest rated by 10 points. It was rated in Australia under the Greenstar rating tool from the Green Building Council, and scored a perfect score of 105 out of a possible 105.
What are the aesthetic and functional roles of Pixel's facade?
The primary shading shelf to each floor is profiled with a "Living Edge” that creates 140 linear meters of gray water treating reed bed. This shelf shades the floor below, and provides specialist access to clean windows from. This shelf creates a living greenery at each floor, but also supports the colored external panels. These panels shade the building from northern and western solar gain, they mitigate glare and provide 98 percent daylight to the offices. They are structured to preserve views from the building to the outside. They allow light to reach the Living Edge growing medium, and create an internal vibrancy of warmth and depth in color.
They are also a very bold, colorful and identity brand statement about the building. The client's initial brief to Studio505 was to build a "boring building." They thought that a building devoid of style would prove that sustainability was not actually simply a style of architecture. We said we need to be able to create a building that people could see as a bold and fluid object with spunk and presence while still proving that sustainability is not the style, but the function.
Culturally, what does Melbourne typically expect out of its architecture and how have those standards evolved?
Studio505 was initially born in 1997. Since then Melbourne’s cultural expectations of architecture have been awakened by the city's growth, by its reconnection to the river Yarra, by the massive hope of Docklands and many key cultural and civic projects.
Melbourne has always had a very mature sensibility for architecture, perhaps due to its inherent lack of geography and amazing harbors. That sensibility has been responsible for some of the great modernist buildings of Australia, for the great Victorian gold rush-era works, and for parks, gardens and city planning that continue to make it one of the most ‘liveable’ cities in the world.
The cultural expectation in the last 10 years though is hard to call. Personally I have lost a lot of my own expectations of the general architectural outcomes, not because we can't do it as a profession, but because I know that the developers and their target markets are diversifying and diluting their own expectations of a cultural architecture.