What the West can learn China

In recent years, Chinese companies have mastered the art of being bold and taking risks in their workplace design.

October 21, 2016

By applying creative thinking to ambitious projects, they’ve built a plethora of noteworthy spaces which have attracted attention from around the world.

Now, the economic slowdown and a more mature market are changing the way architects and developers approach new designs but beyond simply thinking big, there are still valuable lessons to be learnt for Western companies.


While Chinese companies are still willing to think differently, now, instead of trying something because it’s outrageous or never been done before, they expect architects to prove their value. There’s more focus on well-built, long-lasting buildings, and the tech industry is leading the charge. They still see the benefit of thinking differently, but now that thinking has to be proven out with value metrics, whether in cost, time, construction quality or creating a better place to work.

Façade Innovation

Tech companies are also looking at building façades as opportunities for innovation, to make them more intelligent, better built and more expressive than many in the West. In the wake of the mandate for “no more weird architecture,” the façade is one place where a company can stand out and express an innovative brand: a well put-together, innovative façade says “we’re an innovative company.” Whether that façade is sustainable, highly detailed or simply expresses a program in a different way, their brand comes through in the architecture. Alibaba’s new building by Kengo Kuma, with its dynamic screening systems, is a great example; so are NBBJ’s self-shading towers for Tencent.


Many Chinese firms have commissioned excellent landscape design, including the Vanke Center designed by Steven Holl, or the Morphosis-designed headquarters for Giant Interactive Group. In many of the clients I’ve worked with, there’s very much a cultural connection to the landscape — from the species of plants, to the spaces created, to the ability to be outside in nature. And with research showing that access to nature makes employees healthier, happier and more creative, there’s a proven value to creating high-quality landscapes.


Many of the younger tech companies in China value their employees and go out of the way to create an environment that is comfortable, productive, fun and almost family-like. That stems from a larger cultural emphasis on the family or group, but it’s also good for innovation and productivity. We’re more individualistic in the West, but workplace design can help stimulate that sense of community. Easy access to amenities, whether for socializing, learning or health, can be a critical part of stitching that “family” together.


Many large Chinese companies like Alibaba take care of transportation as a perk for their employees. Tencent, for instance, is building 15 bus stops at the base of their new headquarters to help shuttle people all over Shenzhen. Thanks to dedicated bus lanes, buses get to the office faster, and they also contribute to the sense of family, when employees travel to the office together as a team. While transportation in China is very different from the United States, and while Google has come under fire for its buses in San Francisco, in places like the sprawling, auto-dependent cities of the American West and Midwest, they might be worth another look.

A greater sophistication is coming to corporate workplaces in China, which is good, but companies need to be careful not to become so conservative that it hurts their ability to pursue innovation. Despite economic challenges and “no more weird architecture,” however, companies in China still exhibit a willingness to be bold that the West can emulate.


Jonathan Ward, FAIA, LEED AP, is design partner at international architecture firm NBBJ.

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