On her first day as an architect in China, Alina Valcarce started designing a 1.7-million-square-foot development in a city she had never heard of. Her vision for a three-tower complex in Jinhua, about 300 kilometers outside Shanghai, was chosen as the winning proposal soon afterwards. She was just 24 years old.
Exhibition center design in Chongli, Zhangjiakou, China. Credit: Courtesy of GroupGSA
“I’d just arrived at the office, and they said, ‘you need to lead this project,'” the Cuban-born Spanish architect recalled. “It was crazy. I was developing maybe 20 projects a year. Mixed-use buildings, malls with hotel towers, office buildings — huge developments.”
Valcarce believes that the majority of people in her graduating class have failed to find work in the architecture profession. She said that those who could secure jobs in Europe now work on projects she deems to be less interesting or challenging — “restoration and more basic buildings.”
In 2011, the year that Valcarce moved to China, Europe was in the depths of an economic recession. Young architects in the worst-hit countries — including Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Greece — faced fewer job opportunities and lower wages. In Spain, where Valcarce had previously worked, the property bubble had burst and the construction market had almost halved in just three years.
Yet, in those same three years, China’s construction industry grew by approximately 90%, according to government figures. The post-Olympics building boom was in full swing, and foreign architects were in high demand. Although bigger firms — and “starchitects” like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas — had been cashing in throughout the 2000s, the European recession prompted a new generation of graduates to try their luck in China.
“I was one of the first ones here after the market in Spain started to go bad,” Valcarce said. “After that, there was a wave of European architects coming to China. (Developers) were looking for foreigners to work on their projects — they wanted a type of special design that they didn’t think they could get from local architects.”
These “special” designs were often modernist displays of glass and steel. Clients’ requests also veered into the type of “weird” architecture often associated with modern China, and Valcarce recalls being asked to design an art gallery in the shape of a water droplet. But business was booming.
“Our office started as four people, and we became 20 very quickly,” Valcarce said of the first firm she worked for in China, SURE Architecture. “We were completely overloaded.”
For Valcarce, now 31, the gamble has paid off. Currently the principal of Australian firm GroupGSA’s Beijing office, she has worked on bigger and more ambitious projects than she believes would have been possible in Europe. This includes, most recently, a ski slope-inspired exhibition center being built in Zhangjiakou, co-host of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
There are creative advantages, too, according to 37-year-old Nicola Saladino. Having arrived in Beijing from London (“I was sending out CVs pretty much the week after Lehman Brothers crashed”), the Italian found that his profession enjoyed greater freedom in China.
“People were doing the type of architecture that would have been difficult anywhere else in the world,” he said. “Not because it was more expensive, but because it was really daring. Offices from all over the world were coming to China because they spotted the opportunity to do things that they couldn’t in their home countries.”
Sensing this potential, Saladino co-founded his own firm reMIX studio, which is based in a renovated courtyard a kilometer south of Tiananmen Square. As well as designing new structures — from a 750,000-square-foot school to a geometric circus building in Liaoning province — his firm also works on urban planning and regeneration projects.
While deep-pocketed developers certainly offer freedom of sorts (“you have clients who don’t care about the budget”), Saladino also points to China’s lenient planning regulations and openness to new ideas.
“You can have an impact,” he said. “In China, we can completely rethink our models of how cities work.
“If you are limited by preserving historical heritage, you’re limited in the changes you can make. But if you’re planning a completely new city in rural China, you can really challenge the traditional models and come up with something completely new.
“And people usually don’t ask for permission to enlarge or rebuild their houses — they just do it,” Saladino said.