Trevor Colman talks exclusively to WAN about the way forward in China
It has been a very dark week for China. An earthquake which reached 7.9 on the richter scale caused huge devastation as the whole world was watching. Where many were busy condemning Chinese oppression in Tibet or preparing for the Olympics, their focus swiftly changed as, suddenly, China is in need of aid. Thousands have died. And an estimated 5 million people have been made homeless. Questions are now arising about the recent spurt in construction in the lead up to the Olympics and how this relates to safety standards and the utter devastation.
Architect Trevor Colman has a vested interest in this Chinese tragedy. Just two months ago he opened his first international office in Chengdu in the Sichuan province, just a few miles from the epicentre. He spoke exclusively to WAN about his move and where Colman Architects and the Chinese government will go from here.
Colman decided to open an office in China just a year ago when an enthusiastic employee told him that she wanted to make the move. Encouraged by her enthusiasm and the local contacts she had, they set about opening the office in Chengdu, the employee's home town.
“Having contacts,” he said, “is very important in business so Chengdu was a good place to start”. Colman Architects have a strong ambition to grow in China. They already have developers in Beijing and have begun their first instruction to develop a strategic masterplan for the development of a new neighbourhood in Jintang, an area 30 miles outside of Chengdu, on behalf of the local authorities.
The recent events, however, mean things will run a bit differently. While Colman's office in a shared block in Chengdu still stands, there has been serious damage to the interior walls and they are now conducting work from a residential address.
There have been many allegations that the Chinese are picking and choosing which buildings to make safe, and making the wrong choices. While government buildings stayed largely intact after the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, (which are still being felt), school buildings collapsed like dominoes. On Channel 4 News on Friday, Jon Snow asked Construction Lawyer Ashley Howlett in Beijing if he thought that the speed at which buildings are being constructed has led to lax building practice. He responded:
“Inevitably standards will suffer. I think that that is a conclusion that people have drawn and it may well prove to be the case in some cases. Certainly in China the country is developing at a tremendous pace and when that happens obviously there are down sides. The environment is one that has been well publicised, I think quality, safety – compromises are often made because of the pace of development. The government are very concerned, very serious about remedying that.
“The ministry of construction takes great efforts to try to enforce the regulations but in a country that is as geographically diverse and as populous as China it's not an easy task.”
Jon Snow then asked, but what of the schools which fell when the government buildings never?
“There have been reports of that. I think the internet, blogs and various things are talking about it. Concern from Chinese citizens that construction standards have not been enforced. Again, I can't comment on whether that is true or not but there is certainly talk on that.”
Colman is similarly reticent about the potential for the Chinese government and safety officials to have failed in their capacity to protect the Chinese public from this suffering. He said of the accusation that buildings regulations have not been followed:
“That is not a reasonable assumption to make at all. There are a lot of restrictions and they are pretty stringent. There are a lot of earthquakes in China and in general terms buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes. The ones that didn’t were in the main the older buildings. Earthquake protection, when over the epicentre is still very tough,” adding, “The Chinese are very proud of what they do and want to do a good job.” Speaking of the damage in Chengdu, he said: “Chengdu, if you go through it today you wouldn’t necessarily think there had been an earthquake. A few buildings are down, yes, but it is largely fine.”
While the official death toll raised to 34,000 it is feared as many as 50,000 have died and President Hu Jintao has acknowledged the concerns and beliefs of many Chinese and told reporters that if the regulations had been ignored there would be extreme punishment.
So we are left to think about where to move forward from the quake. Colman hasn't let the earthquake deter him from expanding in China. When asked what the implications for his business in China would be he responded:
“It’s a difficult one to assess,” he continues, “We are doing building work in the outskirts of Chengdu and around China so we have to keep doing work from the office – it seems almost sinister to say but there will be a huge amount of regeneration so one would imagine we will be working on that.”
Colman believes that the Chinese now have an opportunity to create a sustainable way of living and the best way to do this is to build communities: “Building communities means that people can use bicycles or walk to the shops...Our masterplan in Jintang accommodates exactly that principle – we have the opportunity to build health facilities so people don’t have to travel for miles to see a doctor and nurseries so that parents can walk their children there and not use their cars.
“It’s a very exciting opportunity and the scale is difficult to comprehend in the west. Sustainability is a huge issue and an exciting issue to be working on.”
Colman’s plans for China are partly to do with his distaste for much of the current architecture: “In my opinion they are using rather too much of American-style buildings which are not too hot on sustainability...Some buildings just now are horrendous – they are literally car-palaces.”
While the Chinese are presented with an opportunity to turn things around, WAN asked Colman if they were likely to take heed of the damage done and encourage enforcement of regulations more fiercely:
“They will redouble their efforts for safety, I have absolutely no question of a doubt on that. They will almost certainly start to regenerate the areas. They are keen to clear buildings that are not of standard.”
If President Hu Jintao’s statement to the press is to be believed, Colman could be right.
Niki May Young