May 2010

Infrastructure propels development worldwide.

Despite the news of a rising stock market, or the fact that the Dow Jones average has topped 11,000, your own architectural practice may be struggling. Where is the recovery, you might ask? Why hasn’t the stimulus package hit the marketplace yet, or affected your revenues? You must wonder if the whole world feels as you do, if the economy has gotten back to normal anywhere, and is it possible there are places that are actually prospering.

Photo © André Souroujon

McGraw-Hill Construction convened a gathering of construction leaders to address some of those questions last month, and the answer is: It’s a big world out there. At the Global Construction Summit, held in New York on April 7 and 8, approximately 400 people from more than 20 countries gathered to find out where the work is and who is doing what. Cosponsored by the China International Contractors Association, the gathering of leaders, many of whom seemed eagerly poised for answers on those sunny spring afternoons, included constructors, architects, owners, representatives from industry, and engineers, from places as diverse as Nigeria and Korea. At times, the stage resembled a mini United Nations.

Why, you ask, should I care? My own practice is local, rarely going beyond my home turf. What you would have discovered, however, is the fact that some firms have learned to go where the work is, even if that work lies far afield. More important, you would have seen that the world is building, and that some markets, including China and India, are booming, despite the pall that has settled like gypsum dust around our feet. It served as a reminder that the globe is interlinked, and that the construction economy rolls in cycles that will inevitably ramp back up.

How? What will be the engines of growth and change? The underlying theme seemed to be the importance and ubiquity of infrastructure. India’s minister of road transport and highways, Kamal Nath, put it eloquently and succinctly when he described infrastructure as the underlying architecture of economic growth. India, he explained, has enjoyed a decade of expansion in the virtual world, a software economy where relatively little had to be built. The present and future years should be devoted to expanding that nation’s ports, roads, rail system, and airports. Currently, there is a need for $500 billion of infrastructure expansion and upgrade, a situation that will be met by a combination of public and private capital.

As an example, Nath cited the country’s slow turnaround time in its archaic ports, which now require 2.5 days, compared with Hong Kong, which typically flips cargo in a scant 2.5 hours. Port expansion will radically alter India’s competitiveness for the 21st century. Delhi’s large new Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi International Airport, which opens later this year as the world’s third-largest airline terminal (after Dubai and Beijing) — with a capacity for 33 million visitors — will open up the center of the country for international trade and expansion. All of India’s infrastructure plans trail architectural projects in their formidable wake.

As for China, if you thought you had heard the whole of that country’s story, you would have been surprised by the news presented at the summit. Shang Qingxi, deputy chief economist for the China Railway Construction Corporation, bowled the room over when he declared that China is linking its entire country via an updated, high-speed rail service in a $300 billion (1.25 trillion yuan) commitment. Not only Beijing to Shanghai (roughly the equivalent of New York to Chicago) and down to Guangzhou/Hong Kong, but all the burgeoning second-tier cities will be tied together via a completely modernized system that will vastly improve travel time and connectivity, easing the commutes and mobility of a new generation of Chinese workers. It made the rail aficionados in the audience pant for more at home. For architects, Chinese mobility equates to new places of employment, new housing, new commercial centers — all are architecture.

If you thought the Middle East had calmed down (all those see-through buildings in Dubai), builders and consultants reported on the visionary work at the carbon-neutral city of Masdar and the massive investments in Saudi Arabia, which is supporting new hospitals and entire research campuses. Their message? Like it or not, oil still provides the economic engine for building, despite the slowdown in real estate markets in glittering Dubai.

Mega projects continue to live. In Korea, architect James von Klemperer, FAIA, from KPF, and Gale International’s Charles D. Reid told the story of New Songdo City — a massive green development previously, if briefly, reported in these pages, containing Korea’s tallest tower and its largest convention complex cheek-by-jowl with the ever-expanding Incheon International Airport. Infrastructure begets architecture.

Get the picture? Large firms are out there, chasing every opportunity, finding their own share of the global marketplace. As countries modernize their antiquated internal service systems and organize their transportation systems, architects are finding opportunities that cluster around them. Infrastructure dollars are yielding ripples that extend beyond highway and bridge repair, to the centers of cities and out to small towns.

Still confused about the relevance to your own world? You might be unable, because of scale, to fly off to Africa or Southeast Asia, or too small to be considered a contender to design the master plan of a new town from scratch. However, it is heartening to see that the larger world continues its business, with ambition and energy, and instructive to understand the reasons behind the headlines. One unambiguous theme from the summit: Infrastructure has jump-started growth and propelled even developing countries into an expansionist mode. The analogies and challenges for the United States are clear.


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