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Pacific Crossings ‘06

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor-in-Chief

For anyone with a prayer of keeping up with China’s breakneck pace, much less what’s been built in the last six months, you have to be there twice a year. Otherwise, you might miss a new tower on the skyline, a razed neighborhood, or a whole new park, complete with trees. That’s why I jumped at the chance to attend “Pacific Crossings,” a week’s event held in Hong Kong and Shanghai, hosted by AIA Hong Kong, the Committee on Design and the Northwest & Pacific Region of the AIA.

Here’s what you might have seen or experienced. First, after the torpor following the burst Asian bubble in the late 1990s, Hong Kong has roared back. The city has always presented itself with a kind of assured clarity, and construction cranes on both sides of the harbor now join all those spiky towers. Directly across Hong Kong Island, where we were staying, a major new development in Kowloon and the mainland promised to match the IFC center (designed by Cesar Pelli) in height and prominence. They still build them big there—the taller the better.

The downside of prosperity, unfortunately, brings smog, all the more surprising, as the city seemed so bright and washed with light and color on earlier trips less than a decade ago. At night, the subtropical climate blurs into a neon-tinged smudge of light and humid air laced with the odors of food, rendering the pollution more like smoke than the unburned byproduct of factories and generating plants in Shenzhen and Guangzhou and ships in the harbor.

First, I served as a juror for AIA Hong Kong, adjudicating roughly 30 projects in a city where the architects are busier than they’ve been for years. During the day, the conference presented excellent speakers from across Asia, featuring the likes of locals Rocco Yim, or Malaysian Ken Yeang (now headquartered not in southeast Asia but in London), or Jun Mitsui, who runs Pelli Clarke Pelli in Japan, even New Yorkers Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who are designing the new Asia Society Headquarters on a steeply sloping site. Like most COD (Committee on Design) events, academic sessions were interleaved with tours of real places, such as a behind-the-scenes look at the successful airport, ten years later, led by SOM’s Asia director Ame Englehart.

Shirley Chang, an architect friend and writer for Arch Record/China, met at the glitzy conference hotel and gave me an inside look at NOHO, a happening neighborhood just north of Hollywood road—the phenomenon seems to be catching on everywhere—where former storefronts are being renovated into chic shops, restaurants, and galleries.

I personally did the conference thing, dutifully sitting through the presentations, collecting the CEU credits (yes, even editors have to tote them up too). But my motivation was real: the agenda comprised a kind of education on contemporary practice in Asia and China in particular, with a striking emphasis on sustainability (and the lack of it in certain quarters).

Midweek, the moveable feast shifted north to Shanghai, which may have slowed slightly. Wherever we went we were hosted on rooftops—at Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, or at 3 on the Bund overlooking the teeming Huang Pu River and the evening lights of Pudong on the opposite shore. China is like nowhere else: while sipping a glass of chardonnay, we looked up as an enormous digital display screen, mounted on a boat, floated by, fairly blasting its messages into the night air.

On Thursday, Architectural Record and MHC hosted a luncheon for young Chinese architects on yet another rooftop, the popular Kathleen’s restaurant and bar. We asked the 20 professionals to share their work with their peers and us, something they are not accustomed to doing, but once they got into the swing of it, everyone clicked. We hosted a seminar at ECADI, a leading design institute currently working on the CCTV headquarters, and on Friday, I veered off to tour I.M. Pei’s new museum in Suzhou, which had opened the week before. But more about that in the magazine.

Before leaving, I ran into the wife of an architect friend, visiting China for the first time. The pair was staying until Tuesday. It struck me that with an increasing pace of visits from them and other professionals—from people from all walks of life, from around the world, China’s great cities are normalizing in a way, accommodating themselves to worldwide currents. Chaotic, controlled, still growing. Where will we be in another six months?