Clifford Pearson

Clifford Pearson

Clifford Pearson is a writer, editor and strategy consultant on architecture and urbanism. He was an editor at Architectural Record for 26 years and served as the director of the University of Southern California’s American Academy in China from 2016 through 2018.

Responding to a China on the March

December 8, 2020

Editor’s Note: This piece, written by former Architectural Record editor Clifford Pearson, has been adapted from its original version and is used with permission here.


I’m not a political scientist or an economist or a military expert, but I have covered China as a journalist since the early 1990s and have learned a thing or two about the country by viewing it through the particular lens of architecture. First of all, it is many places with different peoples and languages. Go to the mountains of Sichuan, the river deltas of Guangdong, and the desert landscapes of Gansu and you’ll find an incredible diversity of attitudes, customs, and cuisines. Same as a road trip around America would.

In the nearly three decades since I first visited China, the country has been transformed into a global juggernaut. While this may have surprised many in the West, it is seen in China as a return to its rightful place at the center of the world. There’s a reason why the Chinese think of their country as “the Middle Kingdom” and see the previous two centuries as a brief (for China) period of humiliation at the hands of unscrupulous Western nations.

On my first trip to China in the autumn of 1994, I shook my head at all the new buildings clad in white bathroom tile and fitted with reflective blue glass — materials that seemed “modern” to the locals. When I visited the offices of a major architectural publisher in Beijing I noticed large piles of cabbage on the balconies of an adjacent building. They were the allotments of winter produce that the publishing company gave members of its work unit as part of their housing.

Today, all those blue-glass buildings are either gone or dwarfed by architecturally ambitious structures that grace the pages of magazines like the one I used to work for. Many of the most innovative buildings in the world rise from the streets of Chinese cities. In a few brief decades, China has developed the wealth, sophistication, technological skill, and ambition to build world-class architecture. Driving this boom has been a powerful competitive streak in the Chinese character, not dissimilar to that of America’s.

During this same period, China has also nurtured a generation of talented local architects. Many of them earned graduate degrees in the United States, Britain, and Europe, then returned home to set up their own practices. Because the nation was building so much, these young designers got the opportunity to work on the kind of ambitious projects that their American counterparts could only dream of. Although not well known outside of China, practitioners such as Pei Zhu, Zhang Ke, Xu Tiantian, Liu Jiakun, Neri & Hu, Urbanus, and Atelier Deshaus have been busy creating remarkable architecture around the country. In 2012, Wang Shu became the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize.

After establishing thriving practices in China, a few of these architects came back to the West to run academic programs, including Yung Ho Chang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ma Qingyun at the University of Southern California. (Disclosure: I worked for Mr. Ma at USC, teaching and running the school’s American Academy in China.) One Chinese architect, Ma Yansong, is a rising star both at home and abroad.

So a vibrant back-and-forth exchange is shaping the relationship between China and the United States in terms of architecture. Despite current geopolitical challenges, American architecture firms remain busy in China and Chinese architects are starting to make their mark in the U.S. Thousands of Chinese students are studying architecture at U.S. schools and when they graduate many of them work for American firms doing business in China. In 2018, China had 662,000 students studying abroad, more than any other country, and those in the U.S. accounted for a third of all international students here.

Engaging China has been remarkably rewarding for American architects and the architectural profession in general. According to the American Institute of Architects, China was the biggest market for American architecture firms working internationally in 2017—accounting for 26.8% of gross billings for foreign projects, compared to 19.9% for Western Europe, 11.6% for East Asia and the Pacific, 11.4% for Canada, 7.3% for the Middle East and North Africa, and 6.8% for South America.

While China now has a deep pool of talented native architects, it still relies on large foreign firms to design many of its biggest projects. For example, American architects have designed nine of the 10 tallest buildings in China and Hong Kong, showing how the country’s ambitions have strengthened a collaborative relationship between the two countries. In recent years, the expat community in China has hovered around 600,000 with Americans accounting for the second largest number, behind only South Korea.

As every athlete knows, you play your best when you play against the best. For the past few decades, China has learned from the U.S., while buying our products and providing business opportunities to our companies. “When I moved to China in 2008, all of the Chinese executives I met wanted to know what Bill Gates’ office looked like, what Google was doing,” says NBBJ partner Eric Phillips. “Now these guys are setting standards that American companies need to match.”

While architecture represents a very small piece of the complex relationship between the two countries, it shows how a competitive, two-way process can be productive for both sides. The presence of U.S. architects in China has made Chinese architects better and the flip side of this equation now is pushing American architecture and business forward.

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They’re Alive! Skyscrapers that Breathe, Evolve, and (Maybe Even) Move

How Tall Can Skyscrapers Go? The More Pertinent Question Is: How Can Skyscrapers Better Serve Us?

June 20, 2019

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Back in the 1960s, Ron Herron and his compadres in the Archigram group envisioned a Walking City standing on telescopic steel legs that would allow it to ramble off to a new place if its residents got tired of its initial location. While no one has tried to build such a nomadic metropolis, many of the ideas behind this exercise in paper architecture are very much alive and kicking. The notion that buildings should respond to the needs of their users and change over time to adapt to new conditions is driving much thinking on high-rise design today. In addition, Archigram’s faith in technology’s ability to make a better future — while perhaps a bit naïve – still resonates with many of us. But instead of creating machines for living, 21st-century architects are aiming to design living machines that breathe, generate energy and listen to their users. “Alexa, prepare the skyscraper for the incoming storm.”

The 825-foot-tall Tencent headquarters in Shenzhen, China, by NBBJ doesn’t stand on legs, but it has arms that reach out and embrace its two towers. The arms don’t move, but they facilitate movement by the workers inside, providing horizontal connections between the towers and serving as activity hubs for exercise, dining and congregating. NBBJ rotated the towers and offset their heights so one shades the other and together they capture the site’s prevailing breezes to ventilate indoor atria. A modular shading system on the curtain wall varies according to the degree of sun exposure, thereby reducing glare and heat gain. The building’s skin seems alive. And its various rooftops support gardens that offer changing outdoor experiences to people working on upper floors.

The obvious question to ask about the future of skyscrapers is: How tall can they go? The answer is: Much taller than they need to. At 2,723 feet and 160 stories, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a notoriously inefficient building with more than 800 feet at the apex unoccupiable and a large percent of its top habitable floors consumed by elevators and core. When the 3,307-foot Jeddah Tower opens in 2020 in Saudi Arabia, it will have more than 1,000 feet of “vanity height.” Structural engineers’ skill at building high now far exceeds the market’s demand or users’ desire for such things.

The more pertinent question to ask is: How can skyscrapers better serve us? Building tall reduces the physical and carbon footprint of our cities, so it makes a lot of sense. Dramatic skylines give our cities their particular identities and manifest values of innovation and progress. As Daniel Burnham famously said, little plans “have no magic to stir men’s blood.” But in addition to inspiring us, tall buildings today must create healthy and beautiful places to live, work, learn and play. Instead of sucking energy and generating waste, these structures must generate their own power, capture and reuse water and make the planet a cleaner place. Most of the technologies needed to do this are currently available; now we just need to make them more economical. Because of the economies of scale inherent in their size, skyscrapers are the logical place to start deploying these green strategies.

While the particular technologies used will change over time, the direction of high-rise architecture points to various forms of biomimicry — design that’s modeled on biological processes. One way to do this is to undermine the hermetically sealed environment inside buildings, by either adding outdoor spaces such as sky-gardens that are accessible to people on upper floors or creating landscaped atria at various heights throughout a tower. Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has been greening his skyscrapers in these ways for decades, adding nature to architecture and in the process reducing energy loads and creating healthier indoor environments. The next step is to make building envelopes that actually breathe — allowing fresh air in and pushing heat and carbon dioxide out. While studying at the University of Stuttgart, Tobias Becker developed a breathing glass skin that controls the flow of light, air and temperature by changing the size of apertures or “pores.” These openings dilate or contract pneumatically like muscles and require little energy to operate.

In recent years, Arup has been developing building skins impregnated with micro-algae that insulate indoor spaces while absorbing carbon dioxide and generating oxygen. The algae can also be harvested and used as a bio-fuel. The engineering firm tested the technology in a five-story building in Hamburg a few years ago and now XTU, a French studio, is proposing to use its own micro-algae system in a high-rise project in Hangzhou, China.

Meanwhile, David Benjamin and his firm The Living have been building structures using bricks made from a fungus called mycelium. Materials that are grown instead of manufactured have lots of advantages, such as requiring less energy to produce and being biodegradable. Benjamin’s most prominent project was his Hi-Fy Tower installed in the courtyards at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, in the summer of 2014. At Cambridge University in the U.K., bioengineer Michelle Oyen is trying to develop building materials made of artificial bone or eggshell, which are stronger and lighter on a per-weight basis than steel. And because they are produced at room or body temperature, rather than more than 1,000 degrees for cement, they require less energy to manufacture. A lot more research needs to be done before a skyscraper’s structural members truly resemble an animal’s skeleton, but we can now imagine a day when columns and beams can be grown and can perhaps even repair themselves.

Haresh Lalvani, the cofounder of the Pratt Center for Experimental Structures, wants to go one step further — developing building systems that are encoded with information on how to shape themselves, similar to the way stem cells and genes are in living organisms. Working with metal fabricator Milgo/Bufkin, Lalvani has created perforated metal sheets that can be stretched out — using gravity or some kind of applied force — to become three-dimensional structures. The process is similar to cutting a piece of paper into a spiral and then pulling it into a telescoping coil. It gives “pop-up” architecture a whole new meaning.

While the gee-whiz factor of such experimental strategies can be either exciting or a bit silly, the main goal of skyscraper innovation should be creating buildings that are more environmentally friendly, more responsive to the needs of their users and healthier for the people inside and around them. Sensors will monitor and automatically adjust temperature, humidity, lighting, air quality and all kinds of interior conditions. Ideally, we’ll be able to tune these buildings to improve performance and erect them so they can clean and repair themselves. I doubt we’ll ever have skyscrapers that walk, but I can imagine a day when they grow and contribute to an urban ecosystem that’s sustainable, resilient and enticing.

Banner image courtesy Vladimir Kudinov/Unsplash.

Tencent sketch courtesy Jonathan Ward/NBBJ; photograph courtesy Terrence Zhang/NBBJ.

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