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With a Domestic Economy in the Tank, Emerging Professionals Find Work in China

China’s rapidly expanding economy is giving recent architecture grads a place to flex their design muscles

By Layla Bellows

It’s been happening for decades: College graduates fresh out of school taking time for some foreign travel, sometimes picking up work to extend their stay. Unlike the wanderlust of the past, today’s graduates aren’t just heading overseas for fun. They’re hoping to find work in a field like architecture, which has been battered by a persistent recession that looks unlikely to lift any time soon.

In October, the U.S. Department of Labor placed the unemployment rate at 9.0 percent, and employment at domestic architecture firms is still down by 30 percent from its peak in 2008. But across the Pacific, China has been in the midst of a building boom spurred by everything from the 2008 Olympics to the tide of rural migrants moving into Chinese cities every day.

One billion people will live in Chinese cities by 2030, and 221 Chinese cities will have populations of more than one million, according to a 2009 McKinsey Global Institute study. This will call for the design and construction of 40 billion square feet spread across five million buildings; 50,000 of these buildings could be skyscrapers. It's little wonder that as the recession hit the United States, some young architects turned to the Far East.

Landing a job
“Post-graduation I’d gotten job offers in the States, but none of it was design oriented,” says Michael Neil Grundleger, a senior designer at B+H Architects Shanghai office. “It was going to be CAD work or grunt work, or the project itself had no sense of design value to it.”

As luck would have it, Grundleger had a friend who passed along his name to a small Swiss-Chinese firm, which then approached him to do some freelance work for them in China. They’d take care of the visa. From there, he was recruited by Woods Bagot’s Shanghai office, where he became the lead designer on a 30,000-square-foot high-profile Area Interiors furniture gallery. That project got him noticed by B+H. Now in his late 20s, Grundleger, who wrapped up his master’s degree in architecture only two years ago, estimates he’s doing work eight years ahead of what his stateside peers are doing. He typically has a team of four or five people working under him, and has been turning down job offers.

For someone who has followed a more staid, gradual career progression back in the States, this might sound like a professional fairy tale. But it’s not all that unusual for expat architects in China. Adrienne Miles, who double majored in architecture and structural engineering at the University of Tennessee, is now working for St. Johnson, a Shanghai firm started by a Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects alum. She’s been with the company for more than a year, but it’s her third job in architecture since moving to China with her husband in 2009.

“The reason I wanted to come to China was basically to find an architecture position,” says Miles, who had been living in Kansas City, Mo., with her husband and looking for work for about nine months. After her husband was laid off, a friend said they should take a look at China.

“So we actually got teaching jobs just to come out here,” she says. “I found a position in about two weeks.” Now she’s working on a 3 million-square-foot urban planning project.

Miles found that Chinese firms, architecture or otherwise, often like to have a Westerner on staff because it creates an aura of success. This means that face time during in-person interviews matter and that moving to China in advance of finding a job. Moving first and then looking for work also shows a commitment to the country and the culture, which Grundleger thinks is vital.

Grundleger also believes the nature of living in an expat community is one of the reasons the Chinese job market for architects moves exponentially faster than in the U.S. “The interesting thing about living in any expat community is that every one of them is educated, every one of them is a college graduate [who] has traveled and has a pretty interesting background,” he says. “So even if you’re not meeting people in the architecture community, you’re meeting people who have connections to business and projects and the things associated with architecture.”

Developing a career
It would be easy to view these emerging professionals solely as economic refugees fleeing a tough job market. There is an element of this, but they and other architecture expats have found value in working overseas that extends beyond simply getting a job. For them, it’s a way to focus on specific skill sets they want to develop.

“For the most part, the reason why foreigners are hired is because most of the schools in the States are really design-focused, and a lot of the schools here are technically focused,” Miles says. “A lot of the clients here want to see really elaborate ideas—and they want it really fast.”

The difference in educational styles is something Grace Whang experienced firsthand. As a student at Carnegie Mellon University, she took part in a 2007 study abroad program in China. “In China, the first thing we did [were] calculations on how many floors could fit onto one specific plot of land,” she says. “It’s definitely function first, and form integrating afterward.”

In many ways, heading overseas for a semester of school is a good way to make connections with employers. Mary-Ann Ray, an architecture professor at the University of Michigan who participates in the school’s China program, says the speed at which buildings are built in China means that a single year can be the equivalent of five years of work experience.

Now an intern architect at Leo A Daly in Washington, D.C., Whang is working on a project for China Mobile in Beijing. Before the schematic design process began, the client saw 10 different options for each of the three buildings the firm had been contracted to do. Put simply, in Asia architects must flex their design muscles very often and very quickly.

The need to turn out design rapidly suits Grundleger just fine. Though he’s in no hurry to return to the United States, when he does, he’s optimistic about finding diverse and substantive design opportunities. “I’ve focused on a broader scale of project work, so I can come back and find a niche really anywhere.”

Miles’ experience has been similar. “I’ve seen a lot of conceptual packages go out,” she says. “I’m doing a lot of designing and managing, and that’s something that I wouldn’t be doing in the States right now.”

Emerging markets
It’s no secret that China just introduced some hefty taxes for both foreign workers and the companies hiring them, which is leading some to speculate that the market for Western architects will cool. Ray says that Chinese architecture schools also are getting better, reducing demand for American architects.

But just because China may have peaked as a place for Americans ready to take a plunge, that doesn’t mean there won’t be work elsewhere overseas. Grundleger says he’s seen growth in Vietnam and Singapore, and Whang has noticed an increase in Korea. Others have reported growth in Brazil and Africa.

The problem-solving nature of architecture provides excellent experience for navigating a job market that is simultaneously shrinking in the U.S. and growing elsewhere. Looking outside domestic borders and checking out opportunities abroad could be a better ticket for expanding your portfolio, rather than taking a just-for-now job to wait out the recession.


One of expat Michael Neil Grundleger’s first built projects was a CEO’s office in Nanjing, China, while he worked for EXH, a small Swiss-Chinese firm. Image courtesy of EXH and Michael Neil Grundleger.

Interior of CEO’s Office in Nanjing. Image courtesy of EXH and Michael Neil Grundleger.

Area Interiors furniture gallery in Shanghai. Image courtesy of Woods Bagot, photo by Carsten Lange.

Grundleger was the lead designer for the Linanggang office complex lobby, which became the basis of the design for five other lobbies. Image courtesy of B+H.

Enoteca Wine Bar at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, another of Grundleger’s projects. Image courtesy of B+H.


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Visit the AIA’s Young Architects Forum website.

Visit the National Associates Committee website.

Read the AIA Best Practices article “Understanding Work Preferences of Emerging Professionals.”


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