AQSO - Xubeihong Memorial Hall - Beijing, China

Sometimes, the biggest architecture firms are also the most courageous. Take Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, with its gutsy SOM Journal (an annual publication in which outside critics evaluate the firm’s designs). Or Perkins + Will, with its revolutionary database of hazardous materials, which can’t help but alienate some manufacturers. And now Cannon Design has curated an exhibition, UnMade In China, about projects for Chinese clients that were never built.  

The show’s progenitor is Mike Tunkey, a Harvard-trained architect who has been visiting China since the early 1990s and opened Cannon Design’s Shanghai office in 2006. In 2008, he traveled to Ordos, Inner Mongolia, with the firm’s plans for a performing arts center, expected to anchor a new arts district in the provincial Chinese boomtown. The building was never constructed, which is the fate of at least 100 other buildings by western architects in Ordos, and countless more in other parts of China, where booms and busts and changes of direction are part of the landscape. No wonder, says Tunkey, when he and other young American architects get together over beers, the conversation often turns to the projects that didn’t happen.

Two years ago, he began planning an exhibition about such buildings, with the support—both financial and moral—of Cannon Design. Architects such as Nader Tehrani of the Boston firm NADAAA, Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam of Atlanta’s MSMEA, and Ben van Berkel, of the Amsterdam firm UNStudio, agreed to talk about their unbuilt projects. The resulting show (which includes models, renderings, and video interviews with participating architects) opened in Shanghai’s ide@s Gallery in April; was seen at Beijing Design Week in October; and is now headed to several U.S. venues (check for announcements).

Tunkey spoke with RECORD from his office in Shanghai.

How did the exhibition come about?

When Cannon asked me to establish the Shanghai office, part of the mandate was do things that contribute to the larger dialogue. This is one of what I hope will be many such projects.

You ended up with some pretty provocative material.

Some of the architects in the videos are more blunt than even I would have been.

Was it risky for an American architect working in China to mount an exhibition that could be seen as critical of Chinese clients?

Although the show is about projects that didn’t happen, we tried to focus on the positives. Most of the architects in the show have actually gone on to do other projects here.

Why aren’t there any Chinese architects in the show?

I have a lot of friends in the younger generation of Chinese architects. None of them would participate; they wanted nothing to do with this exhibit.

You tried?
I spent a lot of time lobbying and talking to Chinese architects, explaining that unbuilt projects, from [Étienne-Louis] Boullée to Mies van der Rohe, are a substantial part of the dialogue, but they weren’t having any of it.
Why do you think that is?

I attribute it to face. They don’t want the client to lose face.
Tell me about the kinds of experiences the western architects have had.
Ron Henderson [founding Principal of L+A Landscape Architecture and Professor of Landscape Architecture and Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University] designed an observation tower for a park in central China. Eventually, the client asked him to present the design to local officials. But when he got to the site, the meeting had been canceled. No explanation.

Just silence?
That was a big theme of the exhibition. It isn’t like in the U.S., where you’re competing for a job, and then you find out you lost and somebody else won. In China, often everyone is “go go go go go,” and then the next minute the phone stops ringing.

What lesson do you draw from that?
If you’re working here, you have to have a strange pragmatic optimism.

Do you feel that way about the Ordos opera house?

Well, of course it’s hard to see something that you worked that hard on not happen. But we got paid for our work, so we didn’t lose any money, and I’m very close to the client to this day. I take the approach that you maintain client relationships in China, and you never know what can happen.

So, is China a land of opportunity for western architects, as it is sometimes depicted in the press?

Certainly the economy has been significantly better since 2007 in China than it has been in the U.S. When I go back to the U.S. I see my friends just struggling to do anything, and we’ve got some very large projects. Still, the economy is cooling here, so you have to be pretty specific about which sectors you’re engaged in. For example, if you’re trying to do residential projects, or speculative office projects, I almost feel sorry for you.

So you’re not doing offices or residential projects?

We’re doing a couple of really big hospitals in China.  They’re each over one million square feet. It’s a top down system here, and lately the government has been opening up the health care sector to private investment. We’re really lucky that Cannon is a leader in health care design.

If China’s infatuation with western architects is ending, aren’t the architects partly at fault? In his interview for the exhibition, Nader Tehrani said that part of the problem was that the ambition (and perhaps lack of sophistication) of Chinese clients fostered “an irresponsibility on the part of western architects” who “treated China as their playground when they could.”

Certainly up until the Olympics, in 2008, the Chinese clients, including the government, were looking for buildings that were more spectacular than functional. And architects were willing to play along. Even architects who are very sensitive when they build in their own communities came here to do buildings that have been described as “vast, fast, and naughty.”

And now?

I think the period when you could sketch something on the back of a napkin, and they’d build exactly what you sketched, is over.