Talented young Chinese architects are beginning to win competitions for every kind of building, from high rises to campuses and civic centers, as well as tiny gems. Many were trained abroad and worked in foreign offices before returning to set up their own small firms. Their optimism is inspiring and surprising, given the pressures from profit-hungry developers and entrenched bureaucrats. They have to battle for jobs with top practitioners from around the world as well as huge state institutes that enjoyed a monopoly in architectural design and engineering until eleven years ago. The newcomers aren’t playing in that league yet, but they’ve realized far more in a few years of practice than most of their contemporaries in the West. Xu Tiantian, who got her masters degree from Harvard and set up her firm, DnA, in 2004, speaks for her peers. “There are frustrations, but it’s exciting to be working in China at this time”, she remarked. “The ambition in society pushes you to explore untried possibilities”. One of the best-regarded newcomers is Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Studio, who teaches and practices in Hangzhou, a former imperial capital. At age 38, he won the commission to build a new campus for 5,000 students of the prestigious China Art Academy, on farmland at the edge of the city. He designed the twenty-one buildings to nestle into the landscape, and uses water to recreate the intimate scale of the old canal towns that have been swallowed up by Shanghai and neighboring cities. Tiles cascade down sloping roofs and projecting sun-screens are stacked end-on atop swooping concrete roof vaults. Borrowing a local technique of building from the rubble left by frequent hurricanes in the China Sea, the architect mixed fragments of terracotta tile with the traditional gray bricks for several walls. An informal gallery of poured concrete with jagged openings adds a contemporary note. “The old guard still wields power, but a new generation and new styles of expression are emerging”, declares Wang. Despite the minimal time for design development and construction budget of 200 Euros/sq m, Wang was able to achieve a high standard of construction by using very inexpensive or recycled materials, and tapping into a tradition of craftsmanship. “To secure quality construction you have to instruct workers and have them do test pieces; to achieve quality design, you must insist on everything.” In Beijing, Studio Pei-Zhu, a husband-wife partnership, has located its office in an old workshop near the historic core, where the scale has changed little since the revolution. Zhu grew up in the dense network of the hutongs, courtyard houses of gray brick and tiles linked by narrow alleys. He has reconstructed one such house for the celebrated artist Cai Guoqiang, replacing a recent addition with a pavilion faced in glass and titanium. And his firm created the Kapok Hotel, a block east of the Forbidden City, as another demonstration of how new structures can enhance the traditional urban grain. A six-story block was stripped to its structural frame and wrapped in a grid of jade-toned fiberglass that catches the light and glows from within at night. The grid reduces the mass of the building and is echoed in the cellular structure of the interior. A glass-walled atrium at the center, courtyards and inset gardens at different levels, provide natural lighting and a sense of openness to each of the 89 varied rooms. More recently, Studio Pei-Zhu completed the Digital building, a fissured block with an illuminated facade that provided a communications center for the Olympics and may have a second life as a showcase of new technology. Another striking addition to Beijing is the 12-story Publishing House on the third ring road. The cantilevered floors suggest an untidy stack of books and the architects describe the interconnected office and public spaces as a micro city. Ma Yansong, one of three partners in the Beijing firm of MAD, seems to be enjoying the same meteoric rise as Zaha Hadid, with whom he worked for a year after graduating from Yale. For the first two years of his practice he entered competitions, winning none, and secured only one small job: a swoopy lake pavilion, the Hongluo Clubhouse, in a gated community north of the capital. Now he has ten major projects in development, from a torqued apartment tower in Toronto to a subterranean museum in Copenhagen, and a 300-meter office tower for the Sinosteel Corporation in Tianjin. A high-rise Beijing hotel with a lacy exoskeleton awaits planning permission. Still more audacious is the blob-like Erdos Museum in the Mongolian desert that was inspired by ancient tombs, and an other-worldly complex of bowed and tapered towers for the city of Wuhan. The firm’s projects and thinking are explored by a diversity of authors in a recent book, Mad Dinner (Actar, Barcelona and New York). Like many of his peers, Qingyun Ma went to the US for his M.Arch and worked in New York, for Kohn Pedersen Fox, before returning to his homeland in 1999. He chose to settle in Shanghai, which was then a livelier, more cosmopolitan city than Beijing, and established his eighty-person MADA s.p.a.m. office there and in his home city of Xi’an. “China seemed ready for good architecture, and that presented me with an opportunity to practice hands-on,” says Ma. “I had accumulated a lot of know-how in the US, but felt that my creativity was being stifled. I thought I could move more quickly from idea to building in China, and practice a lot of things under one roof, including strategy, planning, architecture and media.” Within a few years, MADA s.p.a.m. was working on a diversity of projects. The dynamic planning officer of Qingpu, a burgeoning satellite of Shanghai, commissioned Thumb Island, an undulating concrete structure with a landscaped roof jutting into a lake, and a village-like shopping center. In the port city of Ningbo, the firm created a new urban center, and revitalized a historic riverfront district, remodeling a factory to serve as a municipal museum. Ma designed a rigorous concrete-framed house (Well Hall) for his father and a guest house for his friends on what was once his family’s estate in the countryside near Xi’an, and is now completing an ambitious broadcasting center that will double as a civic hub for a new exurban community. But for every success, there was a setback. Thumb Island was crudely built and the community center it was meant to house never materialized. Audacious plans for the Shanghai Natural History Museum and the China Pavilion at Expo 2010 were rejected by bureaucrats who wanted to play it safe and turn these projects over to state architectural institutes. “I got discouraged while practicing in China”, says Ma. “Society has not invested enough in creative, innovative thinking”. He decided to take a break from the ongoing struggle to realize his ideals, and accept the post of Dean of the Architecture School at the University of Southern California. Meanwhile, his twin offices in China continue to flourish and Ma is sure to return to a messy, imperfect society, where opportunities to excel sometimes outweigh the risks.