SOM Leaves its Mark in the East | The Plan
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SOM Leaves its Mark in the East

SOM | Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

The 88-story Jin Mao tower, an abstracted pagoda in the Pudong district of Shanghai, was completed in 1999 and its success magnified the Chinese debut of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP. SOM was one of the first Western architects to take advantage of that country’s new economic policies and it has since completed 275 major buildings and master plans, and is currently working on more than 30 other projects, all over China. Nowhere has it left a stronger mark than in Guangzhou, a metropolis in the densely-populated Pearl River Delta. SOM’s sleek office towers, ambitious master plans, and a handsome US Consulate General have raised the bar for a city that flourished for centuries as Canton, a Western treaty port, and is now China’s third largest. “What makes us unique is that we are operating at a high level and on different scales,” explains Peter Kindel, who heads the firm’s Hong Kong office. “There’s much greater freedom to build in China than in the US, and now that freedom is coupled to a sensitivity about the quality of life.” Persistence has paid off for SOM, which probably lost money on the $530 million Jin Mao tower, in staying the course through the lengthy process of design and construction. From the start, foreign architects were obliged to work through large state-controlled design institutes (LDIs), which produced the working drawings. That made it hard to ensure that the plans were correctly interpreted and the contractors properly supervised. Even prestige projects were rushed to completion and construction was sometimes badly botched, as happened with the exterior of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House. “Over the last two or three years, LDIs have become more independent and sophisticated, and our relations with them have evolved into a partnership,” says Kindel. “We can rely on them for design advice, project management, and zoning approvals. SOM has just acquired a Chinese license to do construction drawings if we choose to, and we always...

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