It is something of a foundational principle that our work is about our clients. We aspire to understand not just their programmatic needs, but their culture, their aspirations, their sense of themselves and who they want to be – and then to give that back to them in built form. It is a process that normally requires a great deal of sensitivity to subtleties and nuance and it is profoundly difficult, even in the best of circumstances.
What, then, do we make of working in China?
Even before we set foot on the ground, the view from 35,000 feet above the Chinese countryside reveals indecipherable patterns of urbanization and a striking uniformity of building orientation which demand of us the acknowledgement that there is much we don’t understand about China. On the ground, the city is a dense maze of the unfamiliar and unexpected. Certainly there are commonalities that allow us to know certain things, but to know and to understand are different things. Knowing a particular thing requires only the effort to know that thing, while understanding requires much, much more than that – and it is understanding that typically lies at the heart of our process.
This difficulty is compounded by the many hurdles that stand between us and understanding. There is history that we don’t know, not to mention sociology, anthropology, religion, traditions, customs and on and on. We might begin to understand some of these things by asking questions and engaging in discussions, but communication requires a translator which automatically obscures the very subtleties and nuance that we normally depend upon. Even before ideas are translated from one language to the other, complicated concepts and specialized language require simplification in order for the translator to grasp the question being asked or statement being made. At all levels, the act of communicating refuses nuance and keeps real understanding at arm’s length.
What, then, to make of working in China?
Certainly we will find out, but at the moment I find myself reflecting on the basic drawing courses I took so many years ago and in particular the experience of drawing with a pencil at the end of long stick. Instantly upon picking up that stick, it’s clear what you will not do. You will not make small moves. You will not focus on details. You will not, under any circumstances, strive for subtlety and nuance. What you do first is pause, and look. You look harder than you have ever looked before in order to identify the few, simple gestures the will convey the essence of the thing you are drawing. These will be powerful gestures, each line imbued with a great deal of meaning. When you succeed, you will have given your viewer what is most important about your subject and their experience, while lacking in detail, is nonetheless complete.
If we compare the process of drawing at the end of stick to holding a pencil directly, it is fair to say that in both cases we find ourselves working to express the essence of the subject. It is also correct to note that each process will dictate a very different approach to understanding and rendering that essence. Despite these differences, it is undeniable that neither process is more valid than the other, and neither result more ‘true’ to the thing. The two drawings that result will speak very different truths, but both will be equally true.
I think this is what to make of working in China. When we work in the United States, we hold the pencil directly in our hand and the building we produce reflects the truth that is revealed through that mode of inquiry. When we work in China, we’re holding the stick and the building we produce will therefore be different but equally true. What is important is first to embrace that difference and second to recognize that in handing us the stick, our client has already embraced both the process and the result. Designing at the end of stick may be a profoundly difficult thing to do, but it is a challenge we are more than capable of meeting.