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Ager Group / Shanghai

The United States imported more than four times as many goods from China as we exported there in 2010, but our trade imbalance with China has gone the other way when it comes to professional services. The American architecture profession has been part of that export growth. Many major American architecture firms now have offices in the largest Chinese cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, as well as second-tier cities like Tianjin. But trade, by its very nature, goes both ways, and some Chinese firms have begun to open offices in the U.S.

The Ager Group, a China-based architecture, landscape architecture, and planning firm of more than 110 people with offices in Shanghai and Beijing, opened a Boston office in 2007. If this is symbolic of both China’s emergence as the world’s second-largest economy and America’s loss of hegemony, it also isn’t all bad. The Chinese opening of branch offices in the U.S. reflects, in part, Chinese respect for the quality of American professionals, evident in the career of Ager’s founder and president, Xiaowei Ma.

An alumnus of the Beijing Forestry University, Ma came to the U.S. to receive a graduate degree in landscape architecture from the University of Minnesota, after which he worked for Sasaki Associates and other U.S. firms before returning to China to set up his own office in 2001.

His respect for American practice came through in a conversation I had with Ma recently in his Shanghai office. He notes that Ager sends its Chinese employees to the Boston office for periods of time, “to open up their minds and renew their design thinking.” Ma doesn’t see Ager as a Chinese firm with an American branch. Indeed, in a 2008 interview in World Architecture Review, Ma responded to the opposite perception in China. Ager “is not a purely foreign design firm that simply imposes the western design process and design philosophy on Chinese culture,” he said. As one of the firm’s principals in Boston, Jessica Leete, puts it, “That Ager is China-based rather than U.S.-based really only has to do with where the current majority of the work is.”

Ager’s 12 principals represent multiple nationalities—Chinese, Philippine, and American among them—and almost all have international education or work experiences, creating a diversity that Ma sees as essential in today’s global practice. “The world is flat, without borders,” Ma says, “making nationality just a person’s background.” That observation applies as much to clients as it does to design professionals. “Ager is based in Shanghai,” Ma adds, “but the client might come from the United States, [while] in the United States, the client might come from China. … The market is cross-national. Our talents and thoughts are also cross-national.”

That cross-nationalism leads to some practices that may become common in architectural firms with offices around the globe. Ager employs full-time Chinese-English translators, for example. The firm’s “strategic choice required that our company have a very international atmosphere, with bilingual communication,” Ma says. Since its first year, Ager has also organized study trips for staff across offices to other countries, so they can experience as many cultures as possible.

All of this suggests that the very notion of a headquarters and branch office may have become irrelevant. What matters, according to Ma, is a firm’s “continuity of brand”—an idea that is, itself, an American export to the rest of the world. Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

Urbanus / Shenzhen

In the Nanshan District in the western part of Shenzhen, the heady density of the city is far from view. Here, on the OCT Loft campus—a series of renovated warehouse buildings clustered in a dense office parklike setting—the feeling isn’t of industry but commerce of a cultural kind, like an edgy art school. The scene is downright serene compared with the crowded city center of Shenzhen, which has sprung up as an icon of China’s rapid rush to modernization and urbanization: In 30 years, the population has exploded from 30,000 to 9 million.

Designed by Urbanus, a Chinese architecture firm founded in 1999, the OCT Loft campus was one of the first major urban regeneration projects undertaken by the firm, and for the past few years, it has also been the office of the architecture practice. “It’s a unique place, programmed and designed by us,” explains Urbanus partner Wang Hui, “a living case to test our ideas.”

Currently employing 85 staff between the office in Shenzhen and an outpost in Beijing, the firm has come a long way since it was founded by Wang, Liu Xiaodu, and Meng Yan. (A fourth partner, Zhu Pei, split off in 2004 and currently runs a successful practice of his own.) Collectively, the founding members of Urbanus were educated at China’s Tsinghua University and did graduate study in the U.S., then spent their formative years at firms such as Kohn Pedersen Fox and Gensler. In 2004, the firm scored its biggest victory, winning a competition to design the communications center for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Urbanus has completed projects across a wide spectrum of type and scale. The Greater China Oriental New World, a 1.6-million-square-foot mixed-use high-rise in Shenzhen, for example, minimizes the severity of the building mass with towers of vertical folds. The Dafen Museum is a critically acclaimed art institution built into the side of a hill. Urbanus’ most thought-provoking work may be its Tulou housing in Guangzhou. Financed by China Vanke Co., one of China’s largest and richest developers, it was one of the rare high-quality, low-income housing projects in China and was included in an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

The partners are quick to note that their country has experienced a total shift in architecture over the past 10 years. There were two watersheds: the Olympics and Expo 2010 Shanghai, both magnets of architectural experimentation and urban transformation. Change has largely been good, the partners believe. “This phenomenon has the benefit of making modern architectural styles the norm in China,” Liu notes. The downside: “There are many projects being done by architects who neither understand modernist principles, nor have the design ability to create new ideas and images,” Liu says. “The result is … lousy redesign of Western examples.”

Urbanus will do what it can to counter that problem. Just last year, it won the competition to design Shenzhen Crystal Island, a 99-acre transport hub and cultural center, in collaboration with the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Also last year, at a much smaller scale, the firm completed the Jade Bamboo Garden in Shenzhen, a patch of green space over a parking lot which connects two residential areas.

The project, paid for by a private developer as a concession to the local community, was a triumph for both the environment and local urban policy. Says Wang: “Our design is based on reality, as well as a dynamic knowledge pool, and this gives us endless inspiration and nutrition.” Andrew Yang

Morphogenesis / New Delhi

When Manit and Sonali Rastogi started Morphogenesis in New Delhi in 1996, the couple—who met as undergraduates at New Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture and were fresh from graduate school at London’s Architectural Association (AA)—confronted a sluggish economy and architecture market. The liberalization of the nation’s economy in 1991 had yet to impact development, but it turns out their timing could not have been better. As many young architects do, they entered a competition—to design a corporate headquarters for the Apollo Tyres Group, in Gurgaon, Haryana—which they won. The project was completed in 2000 and went on to win several awards.

“From there, we never looked back,” says Manit, who acknowledges that the firm, now 93 strong and led by the Rastogis as well as Sanjay Bhardwaj and Vijay Dahiya, is in the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose its projects.

Ten of the top 30 fastest-growing urban areas in the world are in India, and 700 million people are estimated to move to its cities by 2050. Multinational corporations are flocking to the country to tap into its vast, resource-rich, labor- and consumer-abundant market. The world’s corporate architecture firms have been swift to move in too. (“Oh, they’re all here,” Manit laughs.) Over its 15-year existence, Morphogenesis has completed close to 30 projects, including corporate headquarters for Ernst & Young, commercial office buildings, factories, a shopping mall, and several interiors and high-end residences, as well as an entire residential subdivision.

But rather than settle into the niche of go-to firm for high-design symbols of the new capitalism, Morphogenesis has grander ambitions. “One important thing we are bringing back from the AA is how to think about architecture as a process,” Manit says. The firm indulges in lengthy research phases, giving its work the cultural depth and technological sophistication that has been earning them accolades.

The award-winning Pearl Academy of Fashion in Jaipur (completed in 2008) exemplifies this approach: Utterly contemporary, the building features several clever takes on traditional techniques. Lifted on piloti, it has a central void or underbelly with a deep pool fed by recycled and rainwater, which evaporates and cools the building. The idea is based on the baoli, or stepwell, seen in ancient Indian architecture.

At this pivotal moment in India’s development, Morphogenesis’ principals realize the urgency to get involved. This might explain why the firm is investing so much energy in a plan to transform the city’s extensive network of nullahs (canals) from unhygienic sewage drains to a green network of pedestrian and cycling paths and new social spaces.Perhaps most ambitiously, in 2009, Manit took the helm of the Sushant School of Art and Architecture and launched a School of Design. “Pure frustration,” Manit explains as his motivation.

The number of architecture schools in India has jumped from 25 to 135 in the past 20 years, but this expansion, the Rastogis say, hasn’t done much to improve the quality of young architects’ training. The nation clearly has a great many needs at the moment, and Morphogenesis seems determined to fill as many as they can. Cathy Lang Ho