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Rising generation of Chinese architects thrives on innovation

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Fourth in a series on the changing face of China's capital.

BEIJING -- Two very different groups of architects are responsible for most of this city's recent growth: foreign firms cashing in on the Chinese boom and local design institutes affiliated with various universities. Sometimes they work together. And sometimes their relationship grows strained, as was the case when a group of senior architects connected to the institutes wrote a highly charged letter to government officials four years ago, just as Olympic planning was moving into high gear, condemning the design for the National Stadium, by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, as a pricey "white elephant."

In the crudest narrative of contemporary Chinese urbanism, foreign architects are carpetbaggers -- some more talented than others -- while the institutes are sclerotic bureaucracies, practically allergic to innovation. But there is a third group of architects that may, in the end, have the definitive say about the shape of the new Chinese city. It is made up of young designers who were born in China and educated in the U.S. or Europe and have returned to start their own firms, burdened by neither stereotypical Western ideas about Chinese culture nor ties to the hidebound institutes.

The opportunities enjoyed by these emerging architects are almost boundless. If you were asked to wager on the country that will produce the world's next great architect, you'd be foolish not to consider putting your money on China. This century's Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright could well be a young designer already hard at work in Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen and soon to have a dozen office towers or private villas under her belt.

There are questions, to be sure, about whether getting to build so much so quickly will drive the work of these young architects forward or prove overwhelming. For the most part, I've found the designs of the rising generation far more impressive on the computer screen than in finished form. But with the West sliding deeper into its economic malaise, the busiest young architects in the world will increasingly be clustered in China.

Koolhaas alum

Consider Xu Tiantian. The 29-year-old architect was educated at Harvard's Graduate School of Design; after a brief stint working for Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam, she returned to Beijing and in fall 2004 founded a practice called DnA, for Design and Architecture. The firm has completed a gallery in Beijing, a cultural center in Tongzhu and a museum in Inner Mongolia, among other projects.

It is at work on several more museums and cultural centers as well as a stacked complex of apartments and art studios on the outer edge of Beijing, near the new Sixth Ring Road. A dramatic rendering of its design for a visitors' center and viewing platform in the mountainous resort town of Baixi -- in northeast China, near the border with North Korea -- has been widely published in the Western press, becoming an emblem for the growing visibility of young Chinese architects.

"I think of what's happening now for me as a very intense training session, and I don't have to pay tuition," she told me when we met at a Beijing Starbucks to discuss her work.

She added that she had benefited from a recent shift in the attitude of Chinese developers: "For a while, everybody wanted a foreign firm. But now clients are looking for domestic architects." The only problem, she said, is that those clients also push to complete buildings at lightning speed.

When asked how she saw herself and her firm in five to 10 years, she laughed loudly enough to turn heads at the next table. "Five to 10 years? That's the next lifetime. Ask me about five to 10 months!"

I heard similar stories about the pace of change in Chinese cities from 46-year-old Pei Zhu, who studied at UC Berkeley and now runs a growing practice in Beijing.

"We are rushing into this future without really knowing our destination," he told me as he clicked through a well-rehearsed PowerPoint presentation on his work. "Chinese culture needs to breathe."

The architect has made a point of trying to persuade developers to renovate and expand existing buildings rather than knock them down. "Their first impulse is always demolition," he said. He has already scored two victories in Beijing along those lines. His Hotel Kapok near the Forbidden City, which opened last year, and a forthcoming office block north of the city center both wrap eye-catching architectural skins around postwar buildings.

Outside of Beijing, he has produced pieces of architecture more willing to trumpet their novelty. His firm's proposal for a small museum in Sichuan province, to hold works by the artist Yue Minjun, looks like a river stone smoothed out not by centuries of rushing water but by a quick trip through a computer design program.

In this and similar projects, he told me, "we're looking for a futurism that connects with nature or with traditional culture. For us -- and I think for China in general -- these are not in opposition. They draw from each other."

Perhaps the largest and best known of the emerging firms is Urbanus, which employs 50 architects in Shenzhen and 30 more in Beijing. (Pei Zhu was one of its partners before striking out on his own.) Founded in 1999, the firm is run by Hui Wang, Yan Meng and Xiaodu Liu, who were classmates at Miami University in Ohio in the early 1990s.

The pace of development in China, Hui Wang told me when I visited the firm's Beijing office, is both a liability and an opportunity. On the down side, it means developers don't often care about craftsmanship or even the life span of a new building. "We want to be very, very consistent in the quality of the work we do," he said, "but this is very difficult to achieve."

On the other hand, he noted, finding clients with a desire to build innovative architecture is easy: "In China, if a client approaches you and you respond with a cautious or conservative design, you probably lose the job."

In two worlds

Most of Beijing's emerging firms stand with one foot in the world of Western architectural discourse and the other in the rough-and-tumble realm of Chinese urban development. Their young founders, articulate and smart, are practiced at saying the kinds of things about Chinese culture that visiting critics find fascinating. The question is whether they believe their own rhetoric.

I heard a particularly telling anecdote during my visit: that one of the city's rising young architects, after producing some gorgeous renderings of a proposed building, hired a U.S. architecture student to write up a few paragraphs of dense theoretical text to explain it.

And yet to obsess about whether the story is true is to miss a larger point. Since Deng Xiaoping began his economic reforms in the late 1970s, Chinese culture has existed in a nebulous zone never completely detached from Western mores and judgment. During the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, for instance, organizers pinned up a banner that spelled out the word "liberty" -- in English. Nearly everybody in Beijing, especially in this Olympic year, understands that the world is watching. The most talented and ambitious of China's young architects seem to understand it better than most.

christopher.hawthorne @latimes.com

Friday: Architecture and smog.

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