Portfolio of Selected Projects

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chronological Overview

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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Curriculum Vitae

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Hangzhou Projects

Zhejiang Province, China


I joined Tian Ren Architects in the summer of 2007. This young firm of about forty people was one of the first private design offices in Hangzhou, and they had been searching for a western "uncle" to show them why Chinese architecture was so different from what they saw in the international architecture magazines. At the time, I had no clear answer for that question myself; we learned together.

My Mandarin skills were probably at their peak about then, as i was fresh off a year of language study while teaching English in Shenzhen. But Mandarin is a an ancient and simple language: there simply are no words for many "modern" objects or concepts. A phonetic Chinese approximation of the foreign word is the normal solution. Much of the architectural terminology is western, so the office was also interested in developing the staff English skills; every Chinese student knows at least some English, with instruction beginning in the third grade- but they are mortally afraid to use it. The office provided me with translators for important discussions, but that is cumbersome for real interaction; I developed a fluency in Chinglish, which the staff found hilarious, but allowed us to communicate directly.

As I began to sit in on project design meetings, I had a sense of deja vu: I'd seen it all before. In some cases, I was even able to name both the architect and the building they were copying. Rather than cause for shame, the staff and principals were delighted when i could recognize their quarry. Of more immediate concern than the plagiarism was the poor quality of what they chose to copy: I urged them to at least steal from better sources.

The natural response was "So what do you think is so good? And what does your work look like?", fair questions both...


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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Wenzhou Projects

Zhejiang Province, China


In collaboration with Tian Ren Architects of Hangzhou, I participated in several new developments in this prosperous coastal city, including some public schools and the new Opera House.

My biggest involvement was with another vacation home development in the town of Wencheng, a drive to the west of about an hour, into the mountains. Once again, we were asked to review plans done by other architects for the site. It seems impossible that the others had ever visited this rugged site, as the layout was one you would expect to see on a prairie cornfield; there was no reference whatsoever to the existing topography. Luckily, no site "improvements" had yet been undertaken, beyond an entrance road to and the leveling of the first plateau.






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The client was pleased with our new approach, and with some specific comments, asked us to explore it further.


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The client was an experienced developer, and was having difficulty turning loose of the standard western formula- single house, single plot- that was now the Chinese norm. Yet he was taken with the idea of designing "lifestyle" along with housing units, and with some more comments, had us continue with the overall concept.


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This was an unusual amount of time to spend on a project in China. The red tape in acquiring the land from local government was probably compounded by the originality of our approach: no one knew quite what to make of it, and shunted any decision higher up the ladder. This was of some oblique benefit to the developer, however, and he was willing to invest our effort: he asked us to outline the next step we would take in developing this scheme: design development.



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When we had gone as far as we could we the village and medium-density portions of the project, the client asked us to apply the same thinking to the north half of the site.


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Friday, July 22, 2011

Shenzhen University Projects

Guangdong Province, China



I was invited to join Studio Wu Jiahua at Shenzhen University in the summer of 2009.

Most architectural practice in China is under the umbrella of "Design Institutes", quasi-government organizations often affiliated with Universities. Private design firms are a more recent development. Professor Wu runs a design studio that falls somewhere in between the two: a for-profit design practice with private clients, housed in an Institute and staffed by his graduate students from the adjacent School of Architecture. While this gave off a bit of an odor to me (of student exploitation, at the least), I was assured it was completely normal situation in China. Professor Wu's practice had become so successful, in fact, that he was expanding into projects in multiple studios; he thought my "western sensibilities" could be educational for the staff as well marketable to the clients.

I had known Professor Wu since almost my arrival in China; I considered joining him prior to my relocation to Hangzhou. Now fresh off that experience, I made it clear that I had no interest in being a "hood ornament" for his practice, but wanted to be an active participant in developing the projects. We agreed to collaborate.


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Initially, most of our projects were local: design competitions for civic projects, a commercial office tower, university expansion schemes and the like. We had design "pin-up" reviews of work from both studios several times a week (largely in English, at Wu's request) and I was asked to prepare "western-style" schemes parallel to theirs.

I had learned from my corporate experience that Chinese design begins always from the outside: the formula is to come up with a flashy envelope, then divvy up the insides as best you can. I was stunned to learn that Chinese architectural education prescribes the unabashed copybook model. While students everywhere are encouraged to examine published projects, browsing for ideas and inspiration, Chinese students are instructed to copy projects whole cloth. There is not even a word for plagiarism, much less a cultural aversion to it. Context is completely irrelevant; most architects have no idea- or interest in finding out what is existing, or may be planned for adjacent sites.

I would take the more western approach of "form follows function" and try to show how architecture is another language. That by careful analysis of local conditions, and judicious choices in orientation, massing, and the materials used, buildings can say something, and can have meaning. With all tradition of feng shui discarded (save the whims of the money spirits), site-specific design has no currency in today's China.











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Later we moved into the emerging market of vacation home developments. In our first effort for a client in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, we quickly realized that there is no tradition of single-family house in China. We had some explaining to do: no one really knew what a villa was...


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The client came to us after he was disappointed with the first construction phase, prepared by other architects- a common occurrence in China. Rarely does an architect encounter a "clean" project, where no one else has commenced work prior to his involvement, be it master planning, site demolition or large-scale construction. Here we were charged with substantially changing the course of development.


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An even more exciting opportunity came with a project near Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province: a competition for development of a large swath of agricultural land, historically reclaimed centuries ago from the wetlands near Hangzhou. Where regional planning authorities had already overlaid a proposed grid of roadways, we proposed a closer analysis of the existing fabric, and a site-specific solution not reliant so completely on the automobile.


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Our best opportunity came from the project at Longmen, Guangdong Province, a journey of about an hour from Shenzhen. This is prime territory for holiday development, close to big cities, but as yet unspoiled by urban encroachment: abundant clean air and natural scenery. The area is also blessed with numerous therapeutic hot springs. A modest tourism base was already in place: our site had initially been developed with a resort hotel resembling a "tulou", a type of round, urban fortress. These distinctive, historic structures- perhaps the first multi-family dwellings- are unique to southern China, and were developed by the minority Hakka people who still inhabit the region. The client asked us to take another look at the master plan for the development of villas around the hotel centerpiece.





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We developed a completely different concept from earlier schemes: holiday life away from the city, a life without cars. We proposed buildings designed to maximize views, and to minimize the intrusion of vehicles: road pavement was minimal and walking was encouraged. The natural environment was celebrated and enhanced. The client had never seen anything like it, but responded enthusiastically to this approach, and asked us to proceed.

The next step in the Chinese development model would be final construction drawings; design development is virtually unknown there. Site coordination is pointless as all projects start with the same blank slate: existing hills are flattened and farmland and depressions buried under meters of fill to achieve this. Site plans, building forms and architectural details are worked out in one pass (if at all), and the total package is handed to the client as a fait accompli.

At this point, I proposed another approach to Professor Wu: all of my schemes heretofore had been presented in tandem with a fallback Chinese scheme, just in case. As an experiment, why not explore the western development model: i suggested we proceed step-by-step, yi bu yi bu, and do real design development of this scheme with the client. Since we were straying so far from the Chinese norm, this would be a safety net for the Owner. But it would also be an educational experience for the clients, our staff and ourselves.






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Designing with the existing landscape, taking advantage of the surrounding views was the most revolutionary aspect of this approach. Dialogue with the client as the scheme developed was another; construction decisions in China are normally as authoriatarian as those from government, top-down with no discussion, no second chances. The client agreed to compromises when shown the ramifications of the decisions (with much trepidation from the staff), and felt like a player in polishing the project.





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We had an unpleasant ripple in the discovery that the site survey provided us by the Owner had a slight inaccuracy: North was 90 degrees off from what was labeled. While this is a definite problem for a site-specific design scheme, studies of orientation and shading adjustments to affected buildings were positive. Where the normal Chinese response (with heads rolling) would be to start over, we showed that we could deal with this.


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When the client decided to reschedule the construction sequence, we showed we could deal with that, too, and provided a revised scheme that could initially stand alone.


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What the project could not deal with was my 3-week absence: when I returned to the project, it was a completely different world...


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Once again, I was badly burned by relying on words to have any real meaning in China...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shenzhen Urban Design Projects

Guangdong Province, China



Near the end of my tenure there, Shenzhen University "farmed me out" to consultation with a private design firm, Austin Landscape Architects. This relationship offered an opportunity to collaborate on projects that were most appealing to me: the redevelopment of the shabby urban core of Shenzhen. On my very first visit to the city, I was appalled by the stench from the Buji River: where any other city would embrace such a natural asset, Shenzhen had walled it off as an open sewer. Somebody should really do something about this, I thought. This was an opportunity...

I agreed to participate on one condition: that we offer no timid response to the problems. "Make no little plans" has long been my mantra (lifted from Daniel Burnham) and this was the time to put it into practice. I had found that most fresh thinking in China "dies in committee" and never gets presented to a client: the immediate refrain to an unexpected solution is "bu keyi!" ("you can't do that!"). My new collaborators promised that my ideas would get a fair hearing.

Our first effort was for the development of Book City Park, a potential urban centerpiece:



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The principals of Austin Design held their breath as we presented this thinking to the client, the City Government Planning Director (along with the fall-back conventional solution that they insisted upon preparing). To their amazement, the Director responded with great enthusiasm: he commended us for thinking "outside of the box" and beyond the property line, for considering the potential "big picture", and instructed us to proceed with our "fresh thinking".

Our second presentation was a Schematic Plan for the area:


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The Director chose to broadcast this presentation to representatives from relevant departments; he instructed us to meet with those responsible for subway construction, streets and traffic, and the owners of the surrounding buildings, and to coordinate our efforts. Such incremental design is rare in China: urban design solutions normally emanate from the top, in slick generic renderings and photoshopped scenes of unrestrained urban bliss. We were instructed to proceed on the step-by-step course we had established...


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On a parallel track, we were instructed explore the possibilities for redevelopment along the Buji River:





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Work on these projects continued as I made a short trip back to the States. On my return I learned that Book City Park had been submitted for government review. The only problem was I no longer recognized the project from what had been submitted for review...



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Long story short: the changes were never rectified, I ended my association with Austin Design.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Nanchang, Dongguan Projects

Jiangxi Province, Guangdong Province, China





























In collaboration with Austin Landscape Architects in Shenzhen, several schemes were developed for clients in Nanchang.

My modus operandi in China has evolved into bilingual Powerpoint presentations: I can have my English captions translated into Chinese characters very quickly, to compensate for my fluent spoken "Chinglish". Viewers can then "follow the images" with minimal verbal intrusion. This also forces me into a logical and more tightly organized visual presentation than would be customary where I can more easily "read" the audience.

The following is a conceptual site development study for a client who wanted some "fresh thinking". This presentation sold the "big boss" and won us the commission. Sadly, the project has since reverted to the "Standard Development Model" as depicted herein:

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The following is an essay on the development of urban boulevards:

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Also with Austin, we developed a remedial scheme for a typical "towers in the park" development already underway in Dongguan, a fast-growing satellite of Shenzhen. This project typifies the mindless development carpeting modern China, where every city now looks the same. Hi-rise buildings are arranged like game pieces, with no consideration of circulation, wayfinding or the ground-level pedestrian experience.





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Out from Behind the Great Firewall...

Updates here have lagged sorely since China has pulled the plug on my blogging activity; I hope to try and catch up with some images of the projects I've been working on over there...

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This is a slideshow of my entry for a design competition for new Hong Kong-mainland border crossing, my last effort before leaving China in April. I had high hopes for this one, since most of the judges were NOT from the mainland; I foolishly hoped for a rational review of functional alternatives for the project. The winning entries proved me wrong: more silly wallpaper-on-a-whale earned the judges' favor. All ten of the finalists offered superficial pretty pictures (where Chinese design begins- and ends), decorating the (dreadful) conceptual scheme provided by the project engineers, without a single thought of an alternative approach. my observation of modern China holds true: one point three billion people- ONE point of view.

Image of my assembled competition entry boards (six panels in all):

Monday, August 04, 2008

Grand Canal International Design Competition

Sanbao District
Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China



The following panels were submitted for consideration on July 31, 2008. The original format was eight A1 boards, continuously aligned horizontally. Project was exhibited in Hangzhou and given the "Encouragement Award" (4th place, and 40,000 yuan in prize money).


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New York and New Orleans, United States