American Architects Find Work and Freedom in China

American architect Adam Mayer hates to say it, but he’s living the good life in China.

After being laid of from one of the largest architecture firms in the world (SOM) along with many of his colleagues in December of 2008, Mayer tooled around the San Francisco Bay Area until his boss and mentor at SOM told him that if he wanted to work, he should go to where the construction is heaviest: China.

So in the fall of 2009 Mayer hopped on a plane to Beijing and after three months acclimating himself, he found a job that took him to Chengdu, one of the busiest construction sites in China. The company he works for now, CENDES, is based out of Singapore and has dozens of simultaneous projects around the city. They gave him an apartment, a healthy salary and, most importantly, a stack of projects.

The Joy of Design and Ultimately, Construction

In the US, a young architect fresh out of college could never hope to do the things Mayer is doing in China. The industry in the West is filled with accomplished veterans who do all of the design work, while the younger guys do the grunt work for years before they get a shot to actually design a building. In China, “kids” are designing multi-million dollar projects. Much of the work in the US also deals with regulations and codes. A standard municipal Zoning Code in a city like San Francisco is a massive book that greenhorns like Mayer have to pore through, but in Chengdu, those rules are being written and re-written every day.

Blueprints“The biggest difference is that stuff gets done here really fast,” said Mayer recently. “With SOM I was dealing with engineers, city officials and different organizations, but here they give me the freedom to actually design buildings. In the US no developer wants a young guy to design his building, but out here we are the only ones who can do it.”

At SOM, Mayer got one glance at a 27-story building that eventually was scrapped after the credit crisis forced millions of Americans to re-consider their home-owning ambitions, plunging the construction industry (and many others) into a deep recession. Here in Chengdu, there are two dozen projects within the Third Ring Road that his company is either developing or bidding for and he will personally help design many of those projects.

Exhibiting Apprehension

Even though the salary and the living standard in Chengdu might not be Bay Area-esque, the joy of watching his design become real and the freedom to keep doing it makes the move to China worthwhile. Many of Mayer’s colleagues are looking for work — roughly 30-40% of American architects are unemployed or underemployed. Many out-of-work designers and architects are willing to be creative, (as this January NY Times article shows), but very few of them are willing to do what Mayer is doing and take the plunge into a different country. In this somewhat encouraging primer for over-optimistic architecture graduates, the American Association of Architecture Students lists several ways to cope with joblessness including community volunteering, but nowhere is China mentioned. In California, many firms now list Mandarin as a requirement, but even this tell-tale sign has failed to budge the majority of Mayer’s old architect buddies.

“I thought there would be a huge trend to do what I did, but surprisingly, none of my friends want to make the trip,” he said. “China is too foreign for them; the life in the US too familiar.”

If I Don’t Do It, Someone Else Will

Some of the apprehension might also have to do with China’s reputation for throwing poor people out of their homes in order to build an apartment complex that ultimately enriches local officials and developers. The urbanization of China claims enough obvious victims through corruption and greed that some of Mayer’s colleagues find the idea of helping the process along repugnant. Mayer readily admits that the advantages of being an architect in China — breakneck speed, lack of red tape, a lot to do — are closely linked with the disadvantages.

Jin Mao Tower
Shanghai's Jin Mao Tower

The dark nature of China’s urbanization is hidden behind a fog of shady state-owned construction companies, rigged bids for government-sponsored projects, corrupt officials pocketing re-settlement money, the futile anger of displaced people and the increasingly demanding needs of the urban middle class. The end goal seems a bit more visible: a collection of densely-packed cities with efficient transportation systems linking the urban center to the suburban sprawl and to other, densely-packed cities. This end goal initiated and perpetuates an infrastructure boom that has demolished millions of old homes, but the alternative is to halt the boom and thereby halt the economic development that has changed China from a pariah to a world power in a little more than 30 years.

“A bust here would send people out into the streets and the government is terrified of that. Here construction and infrastructure seem tied in with social order,” said Mayer. “In the US its much easier, a bust basically means people sitting on their couches watching TV and collecting unemployment checks or hustling their way into a new way of living. No one in the US is really taking to the streets.”

The eventual end of China’s building spree might spell the beginning of a new economic model — or the end of a political system — but until then, the spree stops for no one. As an architect, China might be the chance of a lifetime and if Adam Mayer doesn’t do it, rest assured someone else will.

34 thoughts on “American Architects Find Work and Freedom in China”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. “If I don’t do it, someone else will”

    This evil and perilous though finally reach the west. It puts personal gains ahead of everything from environment to social responsibility. This short-termism shouldn’t never be encouraged.

  3. Pension? Social Security? What about the family of his remaining in “America”? Can I have a follow up in 5 and 10 years on this guy?

  4. @dentrite I agree that “short-termism” should not be encouraged, but is the answer unemployment? How would you propose to change/halt/alter China’s urbanization process? One idea might be to join the process and design safer buildings that do not collapse at the drop of a hat; or work for a company that handles re-settlement properly and pays a decent wage; I am not saying that that is exactly what is happening in Adam’s case, but I fail to see any other viable options. Terrorism? A return to wholesome country living? Where is the actual short term view in this move (from a jobless situation to a gainfully employed one?)

    @David it was the lack of prospects in the US that brought Adam to China in the first place … As for pensions and social security, I suppose you would have to check out CENDES and see what kind of package they offer. According to what I know of architects in the US, in 5 to 10 years Adam might have designed a project or two, whereas five years in China will probably amp his on-the-job experience dramatically.

  5. Great post. It doesn’t seem like being a foreign architect in China is such a bad deal at all, considering the alternatives.

    @David I don’t blame Adam for putting this years job concerns before worrying about what will happen in 30 years – not to mention, Social Security is an unstable program in the long term and reform in the near term is very unlikely.

  6. To be honest, I’m quite happy that a lot of architects have moved to China…that way they won’t be messing up North American cities anymore.

    China blank-cheque approach to planning and architecture in general caters directly to the vanity that characterizes so many architects.

    While the recession has easily reduced construction in NA, the other factor is that many NA cities have realized we no longer need uber expensive non-functional, isolated ‘starhitect’ buildings that ignore their context, but rather good, functioning, complete spaces that work for residents, and not the architect or the state.

    • Can someone please keep uneducated and ignorant posts like this one from being submitted?

      Architects have no control over what the developer wants nor over what city planners will allow in the “NA” cities.

      I’m so sick of failed wannabe’s or rejects dumping on the Architect profession.

  7. @[email protected] @[email protected] I don’t blame him, I just want more truth in advertising about the benefits and banes of reverse brain-drain. If he decides to relocate again or is sent off after giving up his best, will there be any money remaining for him to make the move? There is certainly no such thing as unemployment insurance for him and I doubt his hard work will be rewarded with a severance that pays for relocation and job search. What is he doing to plan for retirement? I supposed he could design his own burial site, but even concrete tombstones crack and crumble. If there is no Social Security in the United States in the future, at least there is family to rely upon, but what if he cuts those back home ties? The situation in the U.S. is pretty bad, but there appears to be sufficient progressive programs and social services to help people along until the Great Recession stops.

    • True! I guess he has to take advantage of the work load he has now and SAVE instead of living as if the gravy train has no end … speaking of which, anyone ever read Iron Council by China Mieville? … completely off topic but it just popped into my head. amazing story.

  8. All excellent points: do architects like Mayer have any creative input into the buildings they are designing or will they all look like Matrix-beehives? What happens when China’s economy eventually either stumbles to a halt or moves from copying/exporting/building to services/hi-tech/domestic consumption of domestic brands?

    What about fam?

    I personally am a fan of local economies a la Wendell Berry
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendell_Berry

    but we are now still in a globalized economy in which local economies either sustain themselves and deal with the world like George Washington would have wanted us to (“no … entanglements”) or they are “local” only in the sense that locals go to their local wal mart to buy localized products that the central office miles and miles away devised for that particular locality.

    So. What would you have someone like Mayer do? I still have not heard a plausible alternative to “going where the work is at” …

    • Hi Sascha:
      I’m a reporter/writer at Voice of America’s Mandarin Service, I find your website full of interesting information and ideas, such as the one being discussed here. I work out of our Washington office, and wonder if Adam might be interested in doing a phone interview with us. I would appreciate it if you could convey the message to him. Thank you.

    • The NYT story you link in your post has some ideas for out of work architects … but other than opening up a stand or selling ice cream, the best they could do is go back to school or perhaps find work in other developing nations … but where else beside china can he be as busy as he is?

  9. @[email protected]

    Good one. Keep throwing the focus on work rather than quality of life. That should keep ’em busy! To use an architect’s term, it’s back to the drawing board for the likes of Adam Mayer.

  10. I will be pleased to know Adam’s email address. I am French architect based in Chengdu and will be pleased to meet him and have a chat about job in China.
    Thanks

    Philippe

  11. True! I guess he has to take advantage of the work load he has now and SAVE instead of living as if the gravy train has no end … speaking of which, anyone ever read Iron Council by China Mieville? … completely off topic but it just popped into my head. amazing story.

  12. I do not oppose the right, or left if you will, of workers to bargain collectively in a free and open manner with management, but May E.R. is not a worker. He is a professional.

    I apologize for heckling him his choices, but stop short of wishing him well, because AI know he is likely a tool of a huge engineered machine that China is becoming (After Deng’s pragmatist shift, China’s top leaders have come from an elite team of people from engineering academies.) Anyone who’s studied the Industrial Revolution knows what that means. Many suffer to benefit the few, but subsequent generations shall benefit handsomely in improved infrastructure. Maybe knowing that his designs are in use is enough for him.

    I wanted to warn him of the mouse trap he’s possibly in. I went overseas to a Chinese-speaking country to work early in my career. I struggled to find work and went to school for 2 years, improving my Mandarin language. I finally landed the career of my dreams as an editor. I might have made some bad choices, or simply by nature of the sensitive nature of publishing, I became a Target. When all was said and done, I returned to the States penniless and reeling from the Great Recession.

    Still, I feel I have returned to the United States triumphantly, but the future is full of questions for me. What intellectual capital have I obtained over the years? How can I market it? Should I try Mainland China at mid-career, or is there a better way from the States? Will I get used again? What avenues are closed to me? What new ones are opening?

    Happy May Day.

    ———

    “”I don’t remember how many there were, but there were so many I couldn’t count them,” said Tao Binfei, 65, a wheat and cotton farmer who also grows sesame, corn and sweet potatoes. “You can easily step on them just by walking on the road, there are so many.”

    Government officials provided a poison that would not harm humans or other animals. Villagers applied it to the banks of the lake, where the rodents lived, and delivered some to each household. But as the mice began to overrun Binhu, residents and village officials began to make their own homemade poison, which was 15 times cheaper and — because it contained pesticides — much more lethal.

    As a result, the poison also killed about 1,000 cats, 100 dogs and several cows, chickens and pigs, villagers and state media said.

    “We put the liquid poison with one or two tons of rice, and after combining them, we just spread it everywhere, spread it across the mountain,” said Tao Qunxian, the former party secretary, sweeping his arm in a dramatic arc. “Nobody ever did any research about what’s a safer poison to use. We just do it this way every time.””

    http://www.chinanews.com.cn/jk/jk-ysbb/news/2010/02-08/2115496.shtml

    • Yeah, i understand. i am not sure if Adam will face the same problems you did, but so far (from what I hear) he is enjoying the local cuisine, spending his money very un-wisely and engaging in frustrating conversations that may or may not lead nowhere. We’ll keep you posted 😉

  13. Sorry to trouble you, but this may be useful;

    American Architect Writes Book About Working in China for Over a Decade

    “The Tragic Kingdom or; Prisoner in a Chinese Theme Park”, (found on most book dealer websites; Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc), is a behind-the-scenes look into the field of design and build in China. The book is a profile of the personalities, culture, and psychology of the world’s most massive looming superpower as seen through the eyes of an ex-pat American.

    “I have lived and worked in China for over ten years, competing within their system, making my way as everything from a freelance artist in small operations to a senior designer for large corporations. I have witnessed a formidable decade in which China has commanded a modern presence on the world stage. I have participated in the planning, designing, and building of mega-theme parks in Beijing, world-class aquariums in Shanghai, gigantic malls in the Pearl Delta, resorts in Tibet, and panda relocation projects in the foothills of the Himalayas”.

    The true stories and themes found in The Tragic Kingdom, spring from one man’s journey. At the same time they disclose truths about a globalization that eventually will impact every economy, lifestyle, and person on the planet.

    For more information please log-on to my site; http://www.dnbasia.net
    Also available at:
    http://www.amazon.com – The Tragic Kingdom or; Prisoner in a Chinese Theme Park
    http://www.barnesandnoble.com – The Tragic Kingdom or; Prisoner in a Chinese Theme Park
    sincerely,
    Broc Smith

  14. You are all so uniformed, have you ever even been to China? If you are in the real estate development business and are not in China , you are dead. There are tremendous opportunities with good quality developers that are building Quality cities of 10 million in a mere twenty years. The open spaces are important and genuine given the building densities. The urnbanization of 1.3 Billion people cannot be ignored, get a clue!

    • HI there Capt. Obvious, i fully agree with you and so do most of the commentators — China is the place to be if yer about putting up cities in less than 10 years and gettin PAID for it!

      • No, not depressing. LOL (Only now I wished I retitled it)
        But thanks for the comment. And yes, I was the principle designer and construction consultant for The Mayan Area at Happy Valley Beijing, and a lot of the landscape for the Shangri La area, but now live in Shenzhen.

  15. I am a soon to be Master’s graduate of University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Architecture. I have been approached by a friend (an industrial engineer from south of Beijing) who offered me a position working near Beijing or in smaller cities as an architect for his company. They have been making car factories, but also see a market for high rise housing. I would like to know what I would be really giving up to work there for a few years. I don’t have a license yet, and still want to get one. However, unemployment may be the alternative.

    • @ML
      You’d be giving up cheese pizzas and intelligent conversations. But if you relinquish what you once thought was important, you’ll find a wealth of experience and if lucky, a deeper well of being within you.

  16. Hi Nice Artical,
    I’m a Sri lankan born Designer now living and working in Los Angeles, CA, with LEEDs and 3+ years of residential Design experience and 2+ Years working as a technical design & Draftmen for a seismic expansion joint supplier in LA.
    I have a masters in Architecture (both me and my wife who is unemployed now)
    we are still 32 and would like to explore and give a shot at China or Middle east as here in USA there is no hope any more.
    What would you recomend?
    Salary-expenditure = Any savings?
    How much the salary would be for a guy like me? appriciate your input.
    – kennath

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