Chinese Architects on the Coronavirus Crisis, Part 1

Voices collected by Eduard Kögel
2. April 2020
Atelier TeamMinus: Piazza & Art Space, Gujiaying, 2019 (Photo courtesy of Atelier TeamMinus)

At the beginning of January, the new coronavirus broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan and became a pandemic within a few weeks. The measures taken by the Chinese government affected everyone, including architects and the country's entire construction sector. Now that the acute wave of infection in China seems to have stopped, life is gradually returning to normal. But how has the pandemic affected architectural practice and what is the "new normal"?

This survey of some Chinese architects addresses how they have been working during the coronavirus, while Part 2 looks to the future and offers advice to architects working in similar situations in the rest of the world.

How has the coronavirus crisis affected your architectural practice?

Tan Gangyi, Wuhan
My studio in Wuhan created an emergency plan and informed our customers about the situation and our solutions right at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. Our employees could not return to the office in time. We worked separately and established an online network. The virus and its effects on the city prompted me to rethink my approach to architecture.

Gong Dong, Vector Architects, Beijing
Because of the Chinese New Year holidays, we had a kind of time-cushion to get psychologically used to the serious measures taken by the government, including social distancing and quarantine at home. Fortunately, the situation in Beijing was comparatively mild. But the tension just always hovers up there, like a ghost. Every morning the first thing I do is look at the updated statistics. So far, the impact on our office work has been manageable, perhaps because we don’t take on too many projects at the same time; we’re lucky that all of them are still running.

Brian Zhang Li, Atelier TeamMinus, Beijing
Construction supervision became a problem for projects outside Beijing.

Zhu Xiaofeng, Scenic Architecture, Shanghai
It was right about the time when our office closed for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). We decided to start working from home at February 10. After one month of online working the virus was under control again and there have been no new cases in Shanghai for a week. So we decided to work from our office again starting March 9, with everybody wearing masks.

Binke Lenhardt, Crossboundaries, Beijing
As of this moment we cannot foresee the long-term impact. We believe that some of the projects will run longer or have a delay respectively as construction sites are still on hold. But we assume they will pick up, once the virus situation is under control. In regard to the designing and planning stages, we have regular meetings with our clients and other collaborators on our previous and new projects.

Che Fei, CU Office, Beijing
Social media has become the only tool for architectural practice, whether it is the meeting, the coordination between the works or the supervision of the construction site, which is bound to produce profound and unpredictable consequences in the way of architectural practice.

Xu Tiantian, DnA Design and Architecture, Beijing
Since the Chinese New Year, we have all been working at home and will be back in the office from April. Since then, we have been monitoring the construction work on WeChat and reducing the number of trips due to the quarantine policy. 

Chen Xudong, DAtrans Architecture Office, Shanghai
Throughout February, there was a great deal of pressure on domestic isolation, as the whole social and economic development here seemed to stagnate and the construction industry could not, of course, operate normally. But we often say, "There are more ways than difficulties." At the beginning of March, we gradually returned to the office and alternated working, since some colleagues had to look after children who were learning at home via the Internet.

Vector Architects: Multifunctional living space inside Renovation of the Captain's House, Fuzhou, 2017 (Photo courtesy of Vector Architects)

Has the crisis changed the way you work?

Binke Lenhardt, Crossboundaries, Beijing
Most of our meetings with customers and cooperation partners now take place via online meetings, so much more information is generally exchanged digitally. We have two interior construction projects that we regularly monitor via WeChat video-call while the contractor walks through the site with a camera. This is of course not ideal.

Che Fei, CU Office, Beijing
Yes, I am currently monitoring the implementation of my project on social media. But you can’t judge real materials, because architecture is not just visual. That is why I am also thinking about other options for future construction practice. For example, I set up the Media Fabrication course at the Environmental Design Department of the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology.

Tan Gangyi, Wuhan
Brainstorming cannot be done face to face, and the correction of drawings must be paperless. Online networking and video conferencing are sometimes more efficient, though not as direct and friendly.

Zhu Xiaofeng, Scenic Architecture, Shanghai
Sometimes during the online work phase I have to communicate with colleagues, consultants and customers on the Internet through various channels, e.g. WeChat, Zoom, email and other online meeting apps. It takes longer to explain the design and I sketched more, which helped me a lot. I also had to coordinate my work with family life. I switched between drawing sketches and watching my son’s online school class and cooking lunch. And I am proud that my family loved my handmade models and learned how an architect works. As an office, we also had to figure out how to manage the work content and efficiency of the different employees. In the end we had a common daily self-report from each member of each project team.

Gong Dong, Vector Architects, Beijing
In the past 1.5 months, only half of the team was able to work in the office, while the others stayed at home and worked online. This has certainly affected efficiency and accuracy. I still prefer the conventional way, where I personally communicate with physical models and sketches. Fortunately, since this week the office is back to normal.

Brian Zhang Li, Atelier TeamMinus, Beijing
Working from home and online is becoming the norm. It is better than expected in terms of the efficiency and depth of design discussions. However, working with physical models became difficult.

Crossboundaries: The Known installation Pingshan District Art Museum in Shenzhen, 2019 (Photo: BAI Yu)

What economic impact has it had on the office and do you have a strategy for dealing with it?

Brian Zhang Li, Atelier TeamMinus, Beijing
To be honest, the economic impact, if any, is very small. New projects are being added and ongoing ones are progressing, albeit in a digital and remote way.

Chen Xudong, DAtrans Architecture Office, Shanghai
The impact of the epidemic on our office can be described as limited, as most of our projects were completed by the end of 2019 and my office was facing a structural renewal. The new projects are either suspended or are currently in the preliminary phase.

Xu Tiantian, DnA Design and Architecture, Beijing
We do not know yet, because that will only become apparent later.

Binke Lenhardt, Crossboundaries, Beijing
The economic impact of the crisis on our office is still difficult to predict. So far we have been lucky and none of our projects has been canceled. The same applies to exhibitions and trade fairs such as the Shenzhen Creative Week and the Venice Biennale in which we participate – these events are currently only being postponed. Some of our projects are located in the public education sector, where the urgency persists even after the crisis.

Zhu Xiaofeng, Scenic Architecture, Shanghai
State or private companies all seem to want to bring back the economic energy from before the coronavirus. Most of the projects under construction are being resumed and there are also new potential projects for us, for example renovation projects for clinics or cell rooms for quarantine. If the crisis continues to spread around the world, China will no doubt feel the effects.

Tan Gangyi, Wuhan
The economic impact is not yet apparent. However, some developers are considering postponing or even abandoning tourism or experimental projects. In response, we need to develop design strategies for new activities and spatial organization to meet the new challenges.

Scenic Architecture: Zhujiajiao Museum of Humanities & Arts, Shanghai, 2010 (Photo courtesy of Scenic Architecture)

Will the crisis have an impact on the internal organization of the office?

Brian Zhang Li, Atelier TeamMinus, Beijing
Yes, the decisions are now made more distributed and each project team works more independently.

Binke Lenhardt, Crossboundaries, Beijing
In the office, we are preparing more material for online presentation in meetings. In many cases, the presentations need to be more compact because the style of communication is different and more direct. In times of the coronavirus crisis, the government offers free use of certain apps like Zoom and Tencent Meeting to promote technically efficient video/web conferences and webinars. We assume that we will continue to use these programs and will switch to online meetings more frequently.

Tan Gangyi, Wuhan
My studio is small with fewer than ten architects and the internal organizational structure is not affected by the crisis. The only change is that we are now working at home. But we are preparing for new tools like virtual reality and other network technologies.

Chen Xudong, DAtrans Architecture Office, Shanghai
We communicated drawings or ideas by phone, WeChat or online meeting apps. That had little impact on our work. However, the crisis is likely to have an impact on the work structure of architects, including in training. In the future, we will probably be more decentralized and dynamic on the one hand, but more coordinated on the other.

Che Fei, CU Office, Beijing
Yes, some employees were temporarily unable to work in Beijing. In addition, according to the new requirements for office buildings, employees have to work at different times and keep a greater distance between workplaces.

Zhu Xiaofeng, Scenic Architecture, Shanghai
So far there have been no effects in my office.

Xu Tiantian, DnA Design and Architecture, Beijing
We hope not.


See also: Chinese Architects on the Coronavirus Crisis, Part 2

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