It was an ordinary day in February, when, absorbed in my work, Allen suddenly told us a news in a cheerful voice. “Arturo was awarded the most advanced producer!” Everyone in the office was surprised, because this honor is a very traditional, very Chinese honor. And few people had heard of this honor being awarded to a foreigner before. “Maybe we can set up a meeting with him.” Allen said to me. “Sure! looking forward to it,” I replied.
The proposed meeting finally came into reality. We met Arturo in a small meeting room at CSCEC, with shelves filled with hundreds of books. A quiet and modest man, that was my first impression of Arturo. At that time, all I knew about him was from his impressive CV as an outstanding architect posted on his LinkedIn homepage: AIA, master of architecture from University of Pennsylvania, over 30 years’ work experience in the USA, Asia, China, Middle East and Central America, currently chief architect and senior design director of No. 1 Design Department at China Shanghai Architectural Design & Research Institute (CSCEC), and being awarded the most advanced producer by the huge local design institution (LDI) in 2013, which was his first year at CSCEC. Generally speaking, state-owned companies are among foreign architects’ last choices because of the concerns about cultural differences. However, Arturo is doing a really good job at LDI. He is quite unusual.
Arturo came to Shanghai in 2009, 5 ½ years ago. “It was a time when there was a big downturn in the economy. Most of my colleagues lost their jobs in the USA. I had friends with similar credentials; some were vice presidents at renowned firms who were unemployed for 4 years. Currently most of them are in jobs, but they waited a long time. Some had to work in other industries to survive, or depend on a spouse to help maintain them.”
Facing such severe situation at that time, Arturo began to consider working abroad. However, China was not his only choice; he was considering working in the Middle East. After receiving suggestions from a friend, he changed his mind, thanks to a new job opportunity in China.
“I had a colleague who was Chinese. He suggested that I look into China. He returned to his hometown, Beijing and encouraged me to look for work in China. I was fortunate that in a conference six months before the downturn in the economy happened, I met the owner of a JWDA, a San Diego firm with an office in Shanghai. I inquired about opportunities in his Shanghai office. He invited me to go to Shanghai and help his team. He ended up bringing me here, so I was kind of lucky,” Arturo said with appreciation.
Arturo is an architect focused on the technical side. Most foreign architects who come to China work on conceptual design. Foreign design firms here don’t do construction documents, because it’s not part of their scope of work. This difference in work method created great challenges for Arturo as he settled down in Shanghai. It can be easily recognized in his career path from 2009 to 2012. “The challenge for me was that the environment sometimes was not that stable for an architect at a high level.” During Arturo’s first 3 years in Shanghai, he worked at 3 different international firms all focusing on schematic design, 1 year at each firm.
“One year is a short period for an architect to spend in a firm. Normally architects spend many years in a firm. Arturo’s first firm was the Shanghai office of Joseph Wong Design Associates (JWDA). We were in a project in which the owner asked us to do construction documents for the building skin. The project was already in construction and some problems needed solving. After that work was completed, there wasn’t much more for me to do. I had signed a one-year contract and it was not renewed. I stayed in contact with them and went to another firm.
The next firm was Arup Associates. Arup is an engineering firm. I worked with the group of architects that offer total design services. It was an interesting experience. I enjoyed working there and am still close friends with some of the colleagues there.
The third firm was Callison, which provides high quality commercial design. I came there because of college connection; one of the partners was a classmate of mine. I contacted him when I was looking for work and eventually he convinced me to join them. The Shanghai managers appreciated my technical skills. They thought I could teach these skills and manage people at the same time.
Back then I was a shy about managing people and did not know how to do it. It was expected of me but I wasn’t guided into doing it.
Typically foreign design firms in China can’t afford a high level person to do detail design. The contract time is too short and there is not enough fee for that phase. By contrast, it would be fine for a person my age in a company in the USA to be engaged in detail design.
In my new position I’m learning to manage people and direct the creation of technical drawings. If I had done that in my previous firm, I would still be there. I enjoyed my work there as well have good friends there.”
That was the autumn of 2012, when it seemed hard for Arturo to find a suitable job through his personal network established after living in Shanghai for 3 years, Allen contacted him. With the help of Allen, a face to face interview was arranged between Arturo and CSCEC, through which he got to know more about LDI, a firm he was not quite familiar with at that time.
“International firms don’t carry work beyond schematic design and design development. By law, work beyond these phases is the LDI’s scope of work. Only firms that are doing specialized facilities such as high-rises will contract with the owner to do construction documents of the building skin. These firms are able to contract with the owner to detail the building skin design because it’s complicated. Everything else related to the building is done by the LDI.”
CSCEC needed a senior architect with strong technical skills then, and Arturo accepted their offer. It has turned out to be a win-win decision for both sides after 18 months’ cooperation.
“My experience here is different because we are sometimes prime designers, other times the design institute for well-known architectural firms, working on distinguished projects in China. Because we are full-service firm, we do the construction documents. This is suitable for technical architects who are exposed to all phases of design and strong in construction documents.
Besides having to solve technical problems, I have to manage people. It’s interesting to learn how to do this in a Chinese firm. I also travel to client sites and make presentations.
The quality of the projects and job satisfaction has been great I have had few concerns and been very appreciative. The work has been interesting and the working environment very stable for a senior architect.” Arturo said seriously.
While CSCEC offers Arturo a platform where he can apply his abilities to the fullest Arturo is also making great contribution to the firm. For longer than a year, Arturo has been working on a significant project which is important to the firm. Miss Wang, Arturo’s colleague, told us she really appreciates Arturo’s work. “Because of Arturo we have continued very deeply in this project,” Wang said, “Arturo has helped our company take one big step forward on international work.”
“We still need maybe another year to finish this complicated project.” Arturo said, “It’s an unusual situation. Working in other firms locally, I would have finished three projects already.”
Until now, Arturo kept talking in a quiet and modest way. I even didn’t find obvious changes in his tone when we were talking about his new Chinese award: The most advanced producer.
“Oh, yes. It’s very unusual recognition because I’m a foreigner. My Chinese family told me this is very rare to obtain. My relative was head of a series of companies and said it was a rare recognition to obtain. I don’t know. I think the project I’m working on is very important to the firm.
Personally, I was really honored. It’s an unusual honor, like the top honor. Every year, they recognize perhaps a maximum 4 in 1400 people. This means for that period of time, you are the No.1 employee. I think it mainly reflects that the project we are on is important to the firm. Perhaps it also means that I’m assisting them to achieve their company goals.” There was nothing special in his reply, which showed modesty. Actually Arturo is 57; it’s not common for people to work so hard at his age.
“I actually don’t feel tired. I’m very active. Realistically, we Americans consider retirement when we are 65. Chinese retire when they are 60 or earlier. Architecture is not work that you retire from. You get more responsibility in architecture as you get older, because the knowledge of architecture grows. All the architects I have worked with, the longer they worked in the field, the more knowledge they acquired. One can be working until an old age in this field. It’s like if you are a very good pianist, and are disciplined, you can perform until you are old. Your knowledge keeps increasing. You understand more about materials, you understand more about business, you understand more about design. You can continue doing projects and hopefully interesting ones as you get older. It’s an interesting profession.”
“The projects here have been very interesting and challenging. We have an enormous project coming up, although we are still in competition. It will be a major project. Let’s hope we can get it. Oh my god, I’m looking forward to it. Ha!” Arturo was kind of excited when he talked about a potential project; it was the first time for me to see such expression on his face, which convinced me that the true motivation encouraging Arturo to dedicate himself to his career is his love for architecture. He is always glad to embrace endless challenges, while “The most advanced producer” is only a tag for him; it is not that important.
During 51/2 years living in Shanghai, Arturo has gradually developed an understanding of the way Chinese people think and already has a good knowledge of Chinese culture. This helps him successfully adapt to the challenges of working in the LDI, with few foreigners around. “Right now my level of Mandarin has improved. I didn’t come to China knowing Chinese. I have learned by studying many years with tutors.” During our conversation, Arturo also shared a lot of critical thinking about the situation of Chinese architecture practice.
“The way of working in the USA and the ways of working here are quite different. If I had colleagues here trained in US or European firms, it would help a lot because they could teach the staff to do drawing per international standards. Our colleagues learn their skills in the national universities. Their design skills are good, but the method of doing CAD that they learn appears disorganized. The colleagues are set on certain ways of doing things. They are open to learning and quick to adapt, but we have to teach them new ways. I used to do their work but they are faster than I am on the computer. They are extremely hard-working when learning to do things that they haven’t done before. They want to learn because they want to work internationally. I think the new trend for Chinese will be to be working around the world. Chinese architects no longer will work only in their own country. When I tell my colleagues in the American Institute of Architects what I am doing, they find it very interesting.”
In recent years, some Chinese architects, such as Wang Shu, began to step onto the global architectural stage. Arturo also speaks highly of Chinese architects and points out the cultural difference between China and other countries.
“Of course Chinese architects are talented. Most people don’t realize this, but they are ignorant. The Pritzker price in 2012 was awarded to a Chinese. His prize represents that the Chinese are not only doing big commercial developments, but also doing some skillful designs, buildings that are significant in architecture and are uniquely Chinese. Historically, there is a rich tradition here, because of so many dynasties. I think the Chinese firms are becoming stronger, more knowledgeable and more international. In recent history, China was not that open to the rest of the world; it was really isolated. In the last 30 years, with Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China opened to different cultures. That helped to bring a lot of progress and made China more international.
In architecture, British, French, Italians, Germans, and Spaniards, are all more attentive to details. If you compare Chinese architects to Japanese architects, the Japanese are much more particular about the details. Their buildings are exquisitely crafted. Chinese firms don’t worry about details, they are good at focusing on big ideas. They think about incredible and dynamic forms.”
With more and more international firms putting their emphasis on the Chinese market, some people have concerns that traditional Chinese style design may gradually fade away. However, Arturo doesn’t thinks so.
“I read an interview with Ben Woods, the architect for Xintiandi, who adapts the type of architecture combining modern with traditional architecture. He said that international firms focused on doing office buildings don’t have to be so local. The product is similar all around the world because there are certain standards to follow for this building type. Maybe some Chinese flavor can be added, but that is it. In his opinion Chinese firms learn from international architects how to do similar designs. However, there is now a Chinese influence developing. Any project here conceptualized by a foreign firm requires collaboration with local firms, who add their ideas. Last weekend we went to a new large mixed use project designed entirely by a Chinese firm. It was something that could be found in Singapore, large in scale and attractive in design, but the flavor was different. The touches seemed really Chinese, when compared to large mixed use projects designed here by foreign firms.”
China is still experiencing explosive growth; the cycle of a project is quite short here. “The Chinese do things fast, which can lead to loss of quality,” Arturo said.
“Projects are finished very quickly because the client already has a team to build it. This shortens not just the design phase but also the construction phase. The client engages the various manufacturing companies to produce shop drawings for the tender document. The same companies will do the shop drawings after tender and build the project. In the West it is not like that. In traditional design in the west, you include in the team a consultant for each separate discipline, including curtain wall. Each prepares construction document drawings, which become the tender documents, and then the package goes out to bid. Only in fast track projects in the West, such as in some government projects, is the speed similar. In fast track projects, the contractor is hired by the owner at the onset. The contractor advises the design firm and helps in solving technical issues.
In the West typically you may work six months to a year on a project. Here, the pace is much faster. The project I’m working on right now is an exception, but it is unusual,” Arturo added.
“Quality varies per project. High-rises have complicated façade and because of their high profile need to be built correctly. Firms who work on these buildings contract with the owner to do the façade detailed design. For smaller scale projects, which maybe speculative, local firms don’t do details. That leads to a lot of mistakes during construction. In addition, the foreign design architects often are not invited during construction administration phase and they lose control during construction, unless they have a contract for participation during this phase. Therefore, firms working here have to be patient about the quality.
At some point, there will be a bubble in commercial design. Right now the economy is OK. At first firms were working in first-tier cities, followed by second-tier cities. Now they are working in third-tier cities. These cities need town centers for people to meet. But few locals can afford shopping in the the mix of stores being built. They become places to go, eat, drink and entertain the family.”
When talking about his future plans, Arturo said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in China working on interesting projects. Arturo has been working for CSCEC for 1 year and a half, which is longer than the period he worked at other firms in China. He wants to stay there as long as possible.
“China is very big, and has many projects. We foreigners are here to share our knowledge and help the Chinese. In the 20th century, after the world wars, many great scientists escaped the wars and came to America. Those people were helping the US develop its industrial base. In China now the same thing is happening. Great talents are coming to help this economy. I think the Chinese will continue to need us. They will become stronger and work internationally.”
Arturo left the meeting room as soon as we finished the interview, even before I remembered to take a photo with him. I guess he needed to continue his work on the complicated project. I really appreciate having the chance to have a talked with Arturo. There where so many things to learn from him. Devoting himself to the career he loves, always embracing challenges just as when he was young, he is much more than an outstanding architect. I hope I can still hold a passionate attitude towards life when I am at his age. And I believe Arturo himself will never regret the decision he made 6 years ago, which led him to a journey over 5,000 miles away from home and turned over a new leaf in his life. The story of Arturo in China will still last for a long time, with more wonderful chapters in the future, I’m sure.