Want to know what it's really like to work in China? We sat down for a chat with Barry Witherspoon, a landscape architect and contributing author for our blog. Barry has been living and working as an architect in China, at a Chinese design company called “Leedscape”, for nearly two years, he discusses some of the professional obstacles and opportunities he has faced while working in China.
As far as what you have noticed, what are the differences between the American and Chinese design processes? And what can both learn from one another?
The usual American design process is based on an analysis process that identifies opportunities and constraints. This helps to define relationships, forms, and guides the conceptual design. Once we have an idea of a space and what needs to go in it we start to look for images that fit the space. This is much like the Chinese process but the imaging or “branding” comes much earlier in China.
Considering the scale of many of the projects in China, I think Americans could learn from the Chinese not to get hung up on the details and to “just do it”. I think that the Chinese could learn more about letting the context and functionality of a space have a greater influence on the image and the final design, rather than a picture from the internet or a book.
What advice would you give any architect who is considering accepting a job in China?
Here is a brief list:
Before going to work in China, you started a company called “New Urban Concepts” in the United States, it’s an interesting name, what’s the meaning of it and what’s the message that you are trying to present with this name?
The name is derived from the urban design style we call “New Urbanism” in the United States. New urbanism represents the return to planning practices that were based on urban design principles that existed before the automobile changed America. This was a time when people lived close to where they worked, shopped and played. It was a time of higher density and more social interaction. After almost every household owned an automobile, people started to spread out and shopping malls replaced corner markets. New Urban Concepts is based on the promotion the creation and restoration of compact, pedestrian friendly, mixed-use cities, towns, and neighborhoods.
Landscape architecture needs expertise from many disciplines, so communication is very important. How do you communicate with your Chinese team?
Leedscape is a computer friendly company and we pride ourselves on being easy to work with on a digital basis. We minimize the duplication of work from one phase of a project to the next by using computer software wisely. We do this in our office between proposal, design, and detail development teams, and with consultants and clients as much as possible.
By using consistent CAD standards we provide consultants on our team with a product that they can easily reference in our portion of the work. We in-turn reference their work in our CAD files. If the architect makes a change in the building footprint, the change can easily be reflected in our files. This helps us communicate with the team by keeping all of the team members coordinated with the CAD files. By providing a good clean electronic document as a deliverable to the client, we add value to our services.
Graphics are another method. In America we have an old saying (that probably came from China), “a picture is worth a thousand words”. A good quick sketch can often communicate an idea without the need for translation. It is a universal medium.
As a Design Practices Consultant, you also specialize in economic and commercial development. What are the efforts one should take to ensure a Chinese project succeeds not only ecologically but also economically?
Things really are not as different between China and America as many people think. In America I frequently partner with economic development consultants in master plan development. The economic development consultants do market research and determine phasing of things like what utilities will be needed to support specific industries and what components need to be implemented first to attract the desired economic growth.
China is undergoing a period when huge amount of buildings are being built up and many new cities are being planned, a period that your country has been through, how do you see the potential of a Chinese company like Leedscape in the future, and what would you do to cultivate and maintain the company’s advantage in the market? In my opinion Leedscape is a perfect sized company. We have enough people to handle any size project, but we are not so large that someone can get lost in the hierarchy. Everybody has a face here. We are a people-related company and consequently we attract, and retain quality people. As an American working for a Chinese company I am a direct beneficiary of the goal of maintaining a diverse staff. In addition to having different nationalities we are owned by an architect who manages the design aspects, and a business woman who handles the business end of things. We have specialists in horticulture, planning and landscape architecture. Leedscape has a great vehicle in place for training and continuing education with a weekly lunch and learn program. We are currently expanding this program by bringing in experts from outside the company. To maintain our advantage we need to continually evaluate our quality control processes and procedures for design review. Finally, to continue doing what we do best, cranking out good work, and having a good time while we do it!
Finally, given all of your experience, would you recommend coming to work in China?
When I was nineteen (a very long time ago) I took a year off from college and went to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to signal helicopters. It was an enlightening and fantastic experience that helped me get jobs back in the United States.
China is in the process of a “Design Revolution”. The Chinese are rapidly evolving from master forgers who copy other people’s ideas, to trend setters. As more talented landscape architects realize this it is getting harder and harder to get a job. If you want to be a part of the most explosive, creative and environmentally friendly movement, don’t delay!
Even if you fail it will be an experience that you will never forget. Mistakes are easy to get over. It is the ‘what ifs’ that will bug you for the rest of your life.
Barry Witherspoon is a Practicing Landscape Architect from the United States with a Bachelors of Landscape Architecture from The University of Arkansas. He has over 25 years of professional experience in the United States with significant on-site project experience Canada, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, and China. He has taught professional courses including Design, Professional Practice, Grading and Storm Water Management, and Construction technologies as a Visiting Instructor at Clemson University’s nationally accredited School of Planning, Historic Preservation, and Landscape Architecture for a combined total of over 7 years. He is the Managing Principal of New Urban Concepts in Greenville, South Carolina, USA, and is currently working as a Design Practices Consultant for Leedscape in Beijing, China.
A version of this interview appeared previously in “Landscape Architecture Magazine” published in China.
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