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How to get ahead in china

Alan Dunlop

Our second report from Xi’an Jiaotong–Liverpool University is from the different perspective of practitioner and professor Alan Dunlop. The RIBA link counts for a lot, he reports

Alan Dunlop’s drawing of the new school of architecture at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.
Alan Dunlop’s drawing of the new school of architecture at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

‘Sustainability in China is not about carbon reduction or saving the planet. History and built tradition are recognised as important for tourism but not as a catalyst for architectural ideas’

The ambition and pace of urban development in the world’s second largest economy is truly remarkable, with the past 20 years bringing extraordinary change to China’s physical and social landscape. There is an absolute commitment to progress and modernity that is curiously unaffected by issues of identity, built heritage and the natural environment.

Xi’an Jiaotong –Liverpool University in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province – where I am external examiner to the new architectural school – is the first university in mainland China to apply for RIBA accreditation. XJTLU has an innovative curriculum with a teaching strategy unique to Chinese schools of architecture and which stresses contextual analysis and critical thinking. The post has enabled me to work with the international faculty, students and other practitioners and to consider the state of architectural education and practice compared to my own experience in the UK.

Architecture in China is traditionally taught by rote, in a system predicated on the Confucian examinations for the Chinese Civil Service, with its emphasis on repetition, copying and memory.  Every school of architecture teaches the same thing and produces students who are often highly skilled technically and artistically but who lack critical reasoning skills. Tsinghua and Tongji Universities are the foremost ‘old’ schools and competition for entry to both is fierce. XJTLU is often a third choice to these, although it openly expresses its ambition to be the best in China and can still attract the top 5% of students.

According to lecturer Austin Williams (‘Out There’, RIBAJ, June 2012) ‘In a country of 1.3 billion, that’s still a huge range of potentially great students and as we develop our reputation we aim to become first choice’.  Students to XJTLU are drawn by the connection with Liverpool University as one of the UK’s oldest schools and by the prospect of the added kudos of RIBA status. 

Many Chinese students want to work in Europe and the UK, so accreditation is attractive. Despite examinations on PFI building contracts, the history of architecture in Europe and best practice in the UK having no immediate relevance, the students are eager to learn. What seems to separate the two design cultures most are the protection of the natural environment and sustainability.    

Summer in Jiangsu is hot and humid and temperatures in the ancient water city of Suzhou can reach 38°C. Traditional houses were often planned around a central garden or communal space, shaded from the direct sun and with doors to the garden and windows in the clerestory above open to encourage the cross flow of cooling air.

Sitting in on a review where students had been invited to design a new residence in the old city, I asked one how she might plan to mitigate the oppressive summer temperatures and, clearly confused by my question, she looked around for support from her peers – ‘You would provide air conditioning, of course,’ was the response. In winter, temperatures regularly drop below freezing but few projects are completed with adequate insulation and so demand much more energy to heat.   

Sustainability in China is not about ‘green issues’ carbon reduction or saving the planet  but about a route to help China advance and lift its people out of poverty, through its resources in energy, technology and industry. History and built tradition are recognised as important for tourism but not as a catalyst for architectural ideas.  

Food for thought 
Many British architects and students are seeking work in China but what can UK trained architects offer Chinese clients? Architects and students here are trained to think independently, more conceptually and creatively and it is this capacity for challenge in design that is now in demand. As for architects looking to set up in China, most foreign practices work as design consultants and masterplanners. To build in China you must be licensed and have an official ‘Architecture Stamp’, so most built work is undertaken by Local Design Institutes, which are government run.  A foreign practice can apply for a licence but the system is complex and applicants must evidence ‘sufficient education’ and take a series of exams. This requires substantial investment, so only large scale practices are usually able to apply. An alternative is to partner with a Chinese firm that can stamp the drawings for you and design and construction stages follow much the same route as the RIBA plan of work, from preparation and design development, through to construction.

RIBA accreditation is held as a gold standard by XJTLU and its requirements should address the gaps that are evident in how architecture is taught currently. In future we may also see Chinese practices carrying the RIBA stamp.  For XJTLU, accreditation will further enhance its ambition to become the top school in China. 


Alan Dunlop is principal at Alan Dunlop Architects and professor at Scott Sutherland School of Architecture


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