China, land of opportunity

After the collapse of Spain's property market, young architects are heading to cities like Beijing and Shanghai with their sustained growth in infrastructure

Architect Luis Aguirre.
Architect Luis Aguirre.LIU XIAOPU

A century ago, those in search of a new life were advised to go west. But in recent years, growing numbers of Spaniards have been heading east, to China. Young people like Íñigo Sánchez Arrótegui, a 28-year-old architect who left his native Madrid three months ago to seek work in Beijing.

"I arrived on a Friday, and immediately went to see several companies that I had already contacted. I had a number of interviews in the following days, and by the next Friday, I had started working at Anyscale, a small architectural company," Sánchez says.

"I was very lucky, and I am very happy," he says about his job, speaking from his home in a traditional neighborhood in the capital, where he is now also learning Mandarin. That said, he has already come up against many of the challenges of living in China.

"You have to remember that this is a country that is still largely underdeveloped. There are tremendous contrasts, for good and bad. Standards here are very basic. The country is growing rapidly, and so there isn't much of an artistic culture, which means that buildings are put up very quickly, based on very simple designs. This means that the work is often not very interesting. There is a huge amount to do here, which means that there is a lot of work, but very little of it could be described as the job of your dreams."

Luis Aguirre Manso, another Spanish architect who has been here since 2008, setting up a company called Aqso the following year that now employs a team of eight, says that the biggest challenges are adapting to the Chinese way of thinking.

"There are huge cultural differences; the rules are different; and it takes time to adapt. You have to rethink what common sense means when you work in a different environment to your own: my people work simultaneously on interior design, architecture, extending private houses, as well as on government buildings, and town planning," Aguirre explains.

Nothing you will have known in Spain can compare to this"

Sánchez says that while the life experience of working in China is invaluable, he finds the country aggressive. "It can really wear you out. You have to constantly remind yourself that this is a path, and that you have to have the right attitude. You have to try to understand things that seemingly make no sense; otherwise you'll go mad."

According to the Spanish consulate in Shanghai, the number of Spaniards now registered in the country has doubled since 2008, and more than a third of them are aged below 35.

"More and more young people are coming here to look for work or have already found it after finishing their studies in Spain," says Alberto Zafra of the Spanish Consulate in Shanghai.

Aguirre says that he is still astonished at the pace of change in China. Around 53 percent of the population - some 711 million people - live in cities; consultants McKinsey says that that figure will have increased by 350 million by 2025, which will require a sustained building program at all levels.

Lu Ting, an economist at the Bank of America, says that spending on infrastructure in China last year was around 885 billion euros, and will reach 14.7 trillion euros over the coming decade.

Not all projects are vast in scale and need to be completed quickly, explains Igor Bragado Fernández, a 27-year-old architect from Gernika in the Basque Country, who moved to Beijing in 2011 and now works for Tao, a 10-person team that has been working on two projects for the last 18 months.

"We take into account research, technology, local culture and, above all, pay close attention to detail," says Bragado, adding: "It is time to change the image of Chinese architecture as high-speed, low-quality."

"There is much to be done here still: cities are in transformation, but beyond the construction boom, China offers people coming here a chance to work in a new perspective, a chance to think differently about how to do things," says Aguirre, who has been working for the last two years in Hutopolis, an international research project on urban development in China.

"Nothing you will have known in Spain can compare to this," he adds.

"For several years now, academics and researchers from all over the world have been studying the impact of rapid economic growth on architecture and life in cities," says Bragado, who gave a presentation in June at a workshop organized by Columbia University in Beijing.

"Despite the tragedy of what has happened in Spain, there are positive aspects, among them the fact that people are having to think about living abroad and seeing a bit more of the world and life than they would normally have done."

Sánchez agrees: "Once you are out of Spain, you soon see things differently; you see your own country in a different light, and you start to understand other factors."

He says that he wants to stay in Beijing for another couple of years, and then maybe move on to Shanghai, Tokyo or Hong Kong.

"Returning to Spain would be to impose limits on myself again, especially now that more and more Spaniards are traveling abroad," he adds, saying: "It used to be that living abroad made you a bit special, different, but now it is increasingly normal to have spent time out of the country; it's something we all need to do."

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