Go to China, top architect tells Scots graduates

Scots are being advised to go to China, where construction is booming.
Scots are being advised to go to China, where construction is booming.
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ARCHITECTURE graduates are stacking supermarket shelves because there is “nothing for them here” and it is easier to find work in China, according to a leading member of the profession.

Glasgow-based Alan Dunlop said a stagnant building sector, lack of commercial projects and red tape meant small Scottish firms had a better chance of winning contracts in the Far East than at home.

Dunlop is part of a British team short-listed to design a £219 million tourist resort on a 150-hectare site on the South China Sea coast. His previous work includes the award- winning Hazelwood School in Glasgow for blind and deaf children and the city’s iconic Radisson SAS hotel.

Dunlop, a visiting professor at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, now spends much of his time in China.

He said: “I’m telling all my students that the moment they qualify, get out to China because that is where the work is happening. There’s nothing ­really for them here.

“These students are leaving after seven years of architectural education and they’re not able to find a job, they’re stacking shelves in supermarkets.”

Dunlop said a lack of commercial building meant the only work available in Scotland was for big public projects, but that stifling industry rules put off small firms such as his from ­applying for them.

“To qualify for public projects you have to satisfy the pre-qualification questionnaire [PQQ], then you have to have £10 million indemnity insurance and things like that, and this prohibits small firms like this one, despite my 25 years of experience, from ­competing for big projects. It is absurd. It’s as much to do with box ticking and, frankly, covering your backside, as it is about making sure you have got the right architect to do the job. It is really bizarre.

“But it’s not the same in ­China. They don’t require the same PQQ requirements and form filling. I can use the expertise and experience I have and then team up with a firm of architects based in China and compete for these huge ­international contracts.” Neil Baxter, secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, blamed the lack of opportunities here on misinterpretation of European laws on public procurement.

“People are so risk averse and so lacking in knowledge about what is required under European law, that they go way overboard with the stipulations and requirements, and they fundamentally get it wrong,” he said.

“They get it wrong in a way that is bad for the public purse and is very bad for private practice.”

Baxter said procurement ­experts might ask a firm applying to design a school in Scotland to show it had designed several others in the past five years. “Very few practices have done that, so it ends up going to big practices, usually ones outside Scotland,” he said.

“Alan is right, China is a much more relaxed regime. Things are decided by diktat and effectively they can still design on the basis of a pure quality decision. It is a nonsense, but China is an easier place for Scots designers to work than Scotland.”

He added: “You end up pushing people out and effectively disallowing small practices. You could say it’s beneficial internationalisation, or you could say it’s a shame we’re not using local talent ­locally. That’s not sustainable.”

Dunlop is collaborating with the China office of Scottish firm John Thompson and Partners (JTP) and London-based Gillespie’s on the tourism ­resort project. Shanghai-based JTP partner Alan Stewart said: “Five years ago we began working in ­China following an invitation by a local private developer to join a design competition for a settlement south-west of Shanghai.

“More work was to follow and soon we were faced with the problem of managing ­client relations 6,000 miles from home base. The strain on those working on Chinese projects and travelling to and within China proved unsustainable so we decided to take the plunge and establish a subsidiary China studio in 2012.”

Admitting that setting up a business there had involved negotiating a maze of employment and resident visas, as well as dealing with tax and ­licencing issues – a process he described as draining – ­Stewart said companies had to be fully committed to achieve success in China. He said: “Chinese people prefer to do business with people they know and trust. ‘Guanxi’ is the term given to the networks of influence that pervades business culture. In practise it means building the relationship between client or business partners over time.”

Dunlop is also an external examiner at a new school of architecture in Suzhou, near Shanghai, where he hopes to help the English-speaking faculty become the first Chinese institution to gain full Royal Institute of British Architects accreditation. He said UK firms had a lot offer China.

“The education system in China has less emphasis on critical engagement and conceptual thinking, so that is a service architects in the UK are providing,” he said. Dunlop, JTP and Gillespie’s has reached the final three bids for the resort in the Dapeng Peninsula of Guangdong, from 39 initial submissions. The winner is to be announced ­early next year.

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