Catching the Slow Boat to China | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 26.09.2004
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Catching the Slow Boat to China

Hamburg-based architects Gerkan, Marg und Partner have won an international competition to build the National Museum of China in Beijing. Are German architects waking up to the possibilities afforded by globalization?


Meinhard von Gerkan has designed some 100 projects for China

China currently has a reputation for attracting the biggest names in architecture, and the German proposal for Beijing's new national museum saw stiff competition from illustrious candidates including Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas.

Set for completion in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the project foresees merging the Chinese History Museum and the Chinese Revolutionary Museum in a new building covering 150,0000 square meters, with 33 exhibition halls. It's been billed as a flagship museum showcasing the history and culture of one of the world's oldest civilizations.

Der Frankfurter Architekt Albert Speer

Albert Speer

It's not the Hamburg architect bureau's only Chinese project. It's been working in Beijing since 1998. Luchao Harbour City (photo), a seaport for 300,000 inhabitants near Shanghai, and the Museum for City Planning under construction in Shanghai-Pudong, are also gmp designs. Other projects in the pipeline include plans for a university campus, a theater, several office skyscrapers and residential estates.

Back home in Germany, meanwhile, gmp is best-known for designing the new Berlin Olympic Stadium and the revamped Lehrter Bahnhof train station in Berlin.

A 10-year head-start on Germany

Perspektive von Luchao Harbour City, Meinhard von Gerkan

Luchao, Harbour, City, China,

It sounds like a success story, but in fact, compared to the US, Britain and France, Germany has a low profile in China. The main German bureaus are Speer (photo), ABB, gmp and Fink + Jocher.

"Unfortunately, German architects largely missed the boat when it came to internationalization," an official for Frankfurt-based ABB Architekten told DBZ-Online, a Web-site for architects.

"Competition is tough," said Nikolaus Götze from gmp in an interview with DBZ-Online. "After reunification, German architects had a lot to do and had no reason to look beyond Germany's borders."

"Architects from the US, Australia, Canada and England, who'd been struggling with years of recession, were obliged to look further afield," he added. "So now they have a 10-year head-start on us."

China: a patron of avant-garde architecture

The tide is beginning to turn. In Germany, architecture plunged into the doldrums after an initial period of post-unification euphoria. China, on the other hand, has seen a unique building boom that's gathered increasing momentum as the 2008 Beijing Olympics approach.

Skyline von Shanghai

Shanghai's Skyline

"The Chinese government kicked off the 21st century by turning itself into the biggest single patron of avant-garde architecture in the world," architect Christopher Hawthorne told the International Herald Tribune.

Recently, however, foreign architects working in China have witnessed something of a sea-change in the country's urban planning policy.

The Hamburg firm's recent coup may be part of a trend that's seen better days. According to the International Herald Tribune, the Chinese government is slowly reducing its investments in high-profile projects.

"There is a debate going on about these big projects, and whether it's appropriate to be spending so much money on them, and hiring foreign architects instead of Chinese," the paper quotes Yan Huang, who led the planning for the Olympic bid.

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