Alan Stewart, JTP, Shanghai

Interview with Alan Stewart, partner JTP in Shanghai.
by Wu Dong and Ma Kaidi

Alan Stewart of John Thompson & PartnersWhat made you to choose to come and work in China?

In our London office, we won a competition for two jobs over here. Then we got tired of flying between Britain and China – my wife missed me – so we thought we should do things properly. So we decided to open an office in Shanghai.

What do you think of the pace of change in China?

It is too rapid.

What do you notice to be the difference between the British and the Chinese; and how is that reflected in your design?

Well, there is a certain flexibility in design and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s in Paris or New York or Africa, people tend to have the same kind of needs. They have to eat, work and sleep. If you begin to think about the way people use their time and their cities and you begin to realize a lot of similarities… however, we do try to learn as much as possible from the local places and reflect that specific culture, use of materials, etc and to design new places with streets that respond to how real people use it.

So… the answer to the question is?

Well, for example, the clients might say that their target market will be a Chinese lawyer. He will drive a BMW, live in a four-bedroom villa and play golf. So even though we are in China, that description of a person and his or her activities could be anywhere. So what we do try to do is make sure it has to be something locally distinctive. So if you are in Jinan, Hainan or Xi’an, you should be able to understand that you are “there”. For example, if you go to Guilin, it is a very specific type of environment and of architecture which is slightly different to what you find in Suzhou, for example. In other words, our job is to respect the area and the tradition but to realise that people are people the world over.

From your experience, what do you think is the weakest aspect of the contemporary Chinese built environment?

I think the zonal approach is bad: where everybody lives here and all the shops are over there, all the schools are here and the workplaces are over there. Because the distances are too great, people often have no choice other than take their cars. (And there are already too many cars in certain places, like in Beijing and Shanghai). Neighborhoods have to really be designed allowing people to walk and cycle because there are benefits from that kind of life style: cleaner air, healthier people.

Also, some of the buildings could be better insulated, which is really easy to do, but you have to insist that developers do it. We should say – you should say – the walls have to be well-insulated otherwise they should be knocked down and started again.

Sometimes what the client wants is not the same things that the architect wants – especially in China. How you handle this kind of situation?

Well, there are always many people involved, not just the client and architect. The client wants to make money; the government has targets, the people also have a say. As architect you want to express yourself; but also the job is to understands all these different requirements. You cannot just listen to the developer because he/she has only one objective; you cannot only listen to the politician because they have too many objectives. On top of this, architects have to understand the site as well.

Fortunately, we enjoy talking to people and engaging these different parties in this stage of the process. If you do it in one room altogether, everyone can hear different parts of the discussion, you don’t have to have one meeting and then you go to another meeting. If you are all together, you can hear all different issues are and even though you might not agree, you will still understand the reasons and decisions that are made. Architecture is very much a process of insistence… and compromise.