Architecture is booming in China, thanks to the efforts of the country’s burgeoning “Design Generation.”
Architecture suffered in China during the Cultural Revolution, when it was rejected as too Western, and only began to gain a foothold again with the economic development the country underwent in the mid-1980s. Even then, Chinese architects were often criticized for emulating Western design. But over the past decade, Chinese architecture has begun to carve out its own identity.
“Architecture as an independent practice is still very young in China,” Zhao Yang, a 34-year-old architect based in the city of Dali in the southwestern Yunnan province, tells The Wall Street Journal. “It doesn’t have more than 20 years of history.”
Mr. Zhao, like a number of other young Chinese architects, is achieving eminence in both his home country and abroad. Real-estate developer Lee Chunfeng commissioned him to design her home in the Yunnan province after one of her friends in Germany recommended him. Ms. Lee’s 11,800-square-foot home will have three stories to house three generations of her family and is expected to be finished in the spring.
“For a long time, I had wanted my home to be traditional Chinese style,” Ms. Lee said. “But I love Mr. Zhao’s design, which is actually a modern villa style. I changed my thoughts after that.”
The need to develop a modern, original design style is one of the greatest pressures faced by China’s architects today, according to Lyndon Neri, who moved his family from Princeton, New Jersey to Shanghai to open an architecture firm with his wife, Rosanna Hu, in 2004.
“Chinese have a reputation of copying and people make that association very quickly,” said Mr. Neri. “We can’t fight that so instead we try to do something authentic. We’re probably in the minority but over time that will change.”
A look at the top graduate schools of architecture in the United States shows a growing number of Chinese students who want to study their practice abroad and “mesh Western architectural thinking with Chinese ways of living.” This past fall, 12 students from China enrolled at Yale’s School of Architecture, compared with only two in the fall of 2009. And while Harvard’s Graduate School of Design only had four Chinese students in its Masters of Architecture program five years ago, it currently has 30.
But despite the evident value of studying design in the United States, many students — Mr. Zhao among them — decide to return to China to start their own firms. Xu Tiantian, a Harvard graduate who worked at firms in Boston and the Netherlands before moving back to China, notes that there are greater opportunities in the country.
“There was less opportunity in the West,” says Ms. Xu. “It wasn’t as promising as in China, where you can jump in immediately.”
image credit: flickr/wojtek gurak