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Upscaling for the Asian Century

The recent work of Aedas in China finesses the unparalleled demands of scale and a burgeoning economy to create a new kind of architecture set in a rapidly evolving urban milieu

Architecture follows the money. Obvious that, when you remember that the kernel for architectural thinking is actually a catalogue of temples, palaces, public edifices, city plans, offices: all commissioned largely by people and institutions possessed of serious money. So however unlikely it may seem to the modern architectural Schoolmen − recent incarnations of those medieval scholars who agonised over dancing angels and pinheads − it’s likely that the next-but-two generations of recorded heavy-duty architectural conversation will have been conducted somewhat to the east of America and Europe where the money has led: Asia and especially China.

Serious conversations have need of serious content and China has yet to produce its own Ronchamps and Sagrada Familías to channel veneration and exegesis. But the sheer volume of basic material in the form of the above palaces, public edifices, offices and so on already in train suggests the emergence soon of a concomitant body of observation, commentary and theory. The changing rules of criticism will not just be a response to the really quite good architecture being done in Asia but because Asian culture will offer a different starting point for evaluating architecture. Unhappily for us it is likely to be written in languages such as Mandarin and Hindi which few of us or the Schoolmen speak or read.


Waiting for that moment, when 20th-century Western architecture has become a footnote, the current big thing about China is size. The projects are big, the scale of projected new cities is big, its capacity for architecture seems endlessly big. Its economy is fast-growing and big. Its no-holds-barred-ness is big. And, although the perception may have been talked up by architectural corporate flacks, the practices which seem to be getting the big work in China and Asia are big too. That squares with former RIBA president Paul Hyett’s much debated argument that big practices are the future for architecture in the global market economy. Also the practical reality is that you need to be big in order to resource the design and management of vast projects. So maybe big is one of the new elements of which the architectural discourse of the future has to take account.

‘The changing rules of criticism will not just be a response to the really quite good architecture being done in Asia but because Asian culture will offer a different starting point for evaluating architectureʼ

Watching the transition across the West-East cusp, a kind of pattern is emerging. The big US practices served as the early skirmishers in the battle to win China. They were mostly architectural practices working for Western clients seeking to establish an Asian foothold. In their clients’ heads were the conventional glass and steel solutions developed by their homeland letting agents in the belief that offices were offices were offices wherever they were located.

It is at this stage that Aedas has begun to develop an alternative to the mythology of the new glass and steel international style. It’s an upstart, big, Asian/Western practice which, unlike its rivals such as Gensler and IBM and HOK, has been around for only 11 years. Incidentally you pronounce it ‘eye-das’ − it has a connection with the Latin for ‘to build’.

Hengqin_International_Financial_Centre__Zhuhai__China__1_Hengqin International Finance Centre in Zhuhai, China. The tower acts as a powerful new landmark on its riverside site

One_AIA_Financial_Center__Foshan__China__3_Entrance courtyard and reflecting pool

Aedas is really big: nearly 1,500 professional staff, 920 of them architects, in 26 offices in 12 countries and more than 1,000 of them based in Asia and the Middle East. It’s not as big as Nikken Sekkei, Gensler or HOK but it comfortably pips SOM, BDP and the company which it seems to use as a kind of comparison test, KPF. Noteworthy is the fact that all of these have been around a lot longer than Aedas’s 11 years of existence. Not entirely convincingly because whatever you say, Aedas is big, its boss, Keith Griffiths, says, ‘The big side is not of importance to us.’ In fact, before the worldwide recession, it had been bigger with 32 offices in 20 countries. Most of the offices closed were small, five or so staff, and in countries where they were experimental toes in the water. Turin was there to attract Italian design talent, Belgrade was a bit of a flyer, according to Griffiths as were, one suspects, Kiev, Bangalore and Hanoi. They recently closed one of the Kazakhstan offices and the UK staff was cut by 100 back to 300 people. But, Griffiths says, ‘Since 2008 we have actually been growing steadily in Asia.’ Of its £135m turnover last year, £110m came from Asian work.

Practices get big via a number of routes. One is by acquiring or merging with smaller practices − a practice favoured among UK architects before the recession. But not Aedas because they can’t see the point of adapting to other business cultures. The other major route is by organic growth, in Aedas’s case with a twist. Griffiths says, ‘The secret behind our growth is that
we set off with a very strong belief that architecture should be practised locally and globally.’ In its early 1990s incarnation as Abbey Holford Rowe and the Asia-based practice LPT, Aedas had worked in Hong Kong and China as local executive architects for the big boys. Griffiths says, ‘We felt this was not the ideal way of working. The designs were stereotypical North American, designed for incoming US and European clients and were not appropriate for an Asian culture. You need to remember that building types such as mixed commercial and high-rise residential actually emanated out of Asia and demand their own local identity.’

‘When Aedas had a commission it set up a local office to run the job and also establish a base for more work in that region. You think of the Greeks setting up city-state colonies all around the Mediterraneanʼ

So that when Aedas had a commission it set up a local office to run the job and also to establish a base for more work in that region. You think of the ancient Greeks setting up city-state colonies all around the Mediterranean. Griffiths says, ‘We realised we needed peripatetic designers who were prepared to live in these cities to train local people and give them responsibility. And they incentivised them via ownership. So now when clients are talking to a local office the senior designers are all owners.’ And they are to a large extent local architects trained locally or in Hong Kong. In the mainland China offices 65 per cent are locals, 35 per cent are international designers. In the Hong Kong offices around 15 per cent are mainland Chinese, 60 per cent locals and 25 per cent from elsewhere in the world. Aedas doesn’t make a big thing about it but this is a confederation of local architects with a leavening of expertise from around the world. It has a Western dimension and offices to match but the greater part of its work is done in Asia to a large extent designed by Asian architects. And, if the Hong Kong offices are anything to go by, they are young Asian architects.

The financials are that the local office keeps 50 per cent of revenue and the other half, in the case of the Asian operation, goes to the group. A significant amount of that is reinvested in training and development: funding doctoral programmes, releasing senior designers to tutor and lecture in local universities and in employing a consistent number of year-out students regardless of the vagaries of the prevailing local economic climate.

‘In the big scheme of things, Aedas represents a paradigm of the transition practice. Asian in all but name it retains some of the facets of Western design practice, such as rigorous design crits and provocative peer reviewsʼ

So here is a firm which has grown astonishingly and successfully in a very short time. What differentiates it from its big rivals is its view about commercial architecture. Griffiths says, ‘Commercial architecture can be just more of the same. I don’t think it should be. It has to be different depending on where it is practised. In Aedas we insist on each design being particular to its environment. We have never insisted on one way of designing. We are a bunch of individual designers and we are successful because we don’t want the North American formula and that is how we have found our place in the Asian market in which clients come to us.’

China_Construction_Bank_Tower__Hong_Kong__2_The China Construction Bank Tower in Hong Kong joins a skyline already thick with skyscrapers

Greenland_East_Village_CBED_Plots__Chengdu__China__3_Greenland East Village CBED Plots in Chengdu. With over 14 million inhabitants it is one of China’s fastest growing cities

In the big scheme of things, Aedas represents a paradigm of the transition practice. Asian in all but name it retains some of the facets of Western design practice − such as its rigorous design crits, proactive peer reviews, regular global, inter-office and local design workshops and the institution of design buddies. And it has its star designer, Andrew Bromberg, who breaks all the conventional letting agent rules by designing extraordinary buildings which happen to make conventional financial sense.

We don’t know what Aedas will transition into come three generations but we can guess that it will become more fundamentally Asian and that it will have designed and built those temples, palaces, public edifices, offices and city plans which will have evoked an architectural discourse of its time and place.

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