Modernity Vs. Hierarchy: China’s Evolving Commercial Office Building Market
Hasan Syed in Commercial Office Buildings

Chinese commercial office buildings communicate power and corporate culture. They uphold traditional business hierarchies and segregate the executive class from everyday knowledge works. Image © Gensler

When considering the future of commercial office buildings in China, it’s critical to remember how new the industry is compared with that of the Western world.

Forty years ago, long after Western skyscrapers like the Empire State Building were old news, commercial office buildings were still an unfamiliar concept in China. This changed with the Chinese ‘Reform and Opening’ an era of industrialization and state led capitalism which welcomed foreign investment into the country in the late 1970s and early 80s. Western money provided opportunities for entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses. Office buildings began appearing in the city’s major metropolises, but continued regulation of construction by the central government prevented a full-fledged building spree. As the 80s transitioned to the 90s, the regulations began to disappear. Privatization of banks and corporations became the norm, and the demand for commercial office buildings and regional headquarters grew.

Today, China is playing catch-up, trying to build enough square meters to match its ever growing economy and to accommodate the continued migration of citizens from rural areas to dense cities. If China continues on its current path of economic growth, the country will need four times as much commercial office space as the United States has. To supply this nearly unfathomable demand, architects and developers should understand the contradictions and trends shaping the Chinese commercial office building industry. Otherwise they will fail to create workspaces tailor made for China’s unique culture and its growing collection of private institutions.

Transportation systems often dictate layout in Chinese commercial office buildings. Image © Gensler

One trend affecting the Chinese commercial office building market is the ongoing clash between a desire to modernize through design and an adherence to ingrained secular traditions, many of which come in direct conflict with the design community’s current understanding of modernity.

Unlike many corporations in the Western world, which are embracing flat corporate hierarchies that, at least from a design perspective, treat CEOs and entry-level workers in increasingly similar manners, Chinese corporations still embrace stricter and more traditional hierarchical structures. The Chinese executive class remains isolated from common workers, and the two groups only interact in regulated environments. In many Chinese commercial office buildings, the transportation system dictates layout. Executive offices are located on floors separate from that of other workers, and the executives require a separate elevator system that only they can access. Each group has its own gyms, restaurants, and other amenities located within the building, eliminating crossover and constantly reminding each employee of where they stand within the organization.

Many Chinese commercial office buildings contain first-rate amenities. Image © Gensler

This segregated approach to corporate structure and commercial office building design differs from the more modern approach favored by Western institutions, many of which are tearing down the physical barriers between bosses and employees in favor of open environments where spontaneous interaction can and does occur regardless of rank. Chinese corporations may want to modernize and replicate certain practices made popular by their Western counterparts, but a continued devotion to old-school corporate structure (strict corporate hierarchy, little interaction between different classes of workers) keeps them in direct conflict with certain tenets of modern design thinking (open spaces, collaboration trumps separation) that are prevalent in other parts of the world. This conflict is exemplified by the hackable building phenomenon: Western companies are welcoming it with open arms, retrofitting traditional office layouts to accommodate a flat corporate culture, while that type of approach to commercial office building design is 10 to 15 years away in China.

The Chinese remain dedicated to the principles of Feng Shui. Image © Gensler

Chinese companies also remain dedicated to the principles of “traditional and cultural beliefs.” It is not uncommon for a Chinese institution to require its building face in a certain direction, so that it sits in concert with adjacent structures and respects the Feng Shui of the surrounding area. Chinese clients have been known to reject a design if the orientation falls askew by even a few degrees. This is another way in which China’s push for modernity is somewhat inhibited by an allegiance to a traditional way of thinking. In the Western world sustainability, efficient access to natural resources, energy generation and consumption, and a desire to foster well-being and productivity take precedence in the design of a building. These considerations may be increasingly important to Chinese companies, but they still tend to take a back seat to long-established concerns.

Another consequential trend currently affecting the Chinese commercial office building industry is the shift from a developer centric market to a client centric one. In the past, real estate developers set the tone. They worked hand in hand with architectural firms to specify how a building should look, what amenities it required, and where it should stand. Developers understood what clients needed and commissioned buildings with certain specifications in mind. They would then rent the finished product to Chinese corporations, knowing that if a tenant decided to move once its lease expired, the building could easily be rented to another client without undergoing a total renovation.

That model is no longer the norm. Chinese corporations are now taking a more active role in the design process. No longer content to simply buy what developers offer, private corporations want buildings tailor made for them and their workforces. They now view commercial office buildings as long term investments. And because the Chinese prize corporate culture and see it as a key differentiator, each corporation is demanding that the design of its building bring its culture to life and speak to its uniqueness. Chinese companies want everything from the layout of the floor plans to the ornamentations on the walls to reflect the organization’s specific values and aspirations. The one-size fits all office building is a thing of the past. Specialization through design is the new normal, and this is forcing architectural firms to become more comfortable working directly with clients.

Evolution is and always shall be a slow process, and as the Chinese commercial office building industry continues to evolve, the conflict between old and new, between historic preferences and a push for modernity will continue to collide with one another. As architects and designers, we need to be sensitive to the contradictions inherent to this industry. We want to help our clients move forward while staying respectful to the past. We can do this by finding design elements that allow us and the clients to achieve both goals. For example, classical Chinese design embraces time-honored open spaces like courtyards. So introducing traditional courtyards into a commercial building can not only pay homage to a sacred aspect of Chinese design, it can also create a space where a company can foster collaboration and break down hierarchical barriers to cooperation and innovation.

Modernity and tradition often find themselves in opposition, but good design is one way to alleviate the struggle and establish common ground.

Hasan Syed leads Gensler’s Commercial Office Practice in Asia. A design leader with over 20 years of experience in concept design and development of tall buildings, large scale office, mixed use, hospitality, retail and master planning projects, Hasan brings varied international experience and an acute understanding of design thinking to every project he undertakes. Contact him at
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