Asia and key emerging countries have embarked in an impressive movement of infrastructure urbanization and modernization. And while these major projects mobilize international expertise, they are however quite different from those conducted in Europe or the United States. The decision-making processes are not the same, and today’s architects and planners are putting an emphasis on the very experience of space, which varies considerably from one culture to another.

ParisTech Review – AREP, the agency that you founded in 1997 with Jean-Marie Duthilleul, chiefly works abroad, from Italy to the United States via Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, Asia. You are specialized in urban development and transport infrastructure projects that are dubbed “megaprojects.” Is their management any different in a country like China?

Etienne Tricaud – Without doubt, and also there is no such thing as an expression like “megaproject” in the Chinese market, for one simple reason: in China, the basic unit for an infrastructure project like a train station is 100,000 m2 – i.e., over one million square feet. That is ten times as much as anywhere else! The train stations we’re building out there have the proportions of an airport…

This, however, is not the end of the story, as there are also dynamics and processes that differ much from those we are used to. In Europe, launching a “megaproject” has become a very complex issue. There are many more stakeholders involved, along lines devised ad hoc depending on the land and the type of project. In China, and more broadly, in all South-East Asia, planning is delegated to private or parastatal authorities that have been granted wide enforcement powers.

Then it’s easier to work in Asia?

In some ways it’s easier indeed, because we usually have only two parties to negotiate with: the community, and the client itself. However, in Asia just as in Europe, our work entails having to face a territory, that is to say, to face complexity: different scales, different issues overlap that are at stake. What can be said is that the way to address this complexity is not the same over there, and this point deserves to be clarified.

Let’s start with Europe. In the 1950s and 1960s, in a context of rapid urbanization and modernization, what prevailed was a rather abstract vision of the land, which, at that time, was also to be found in the USSR and in Vietnam. Decision-makers reasoned primarily in terms of functionality and rationality. Facilities were designed somehow like machines: one aimed at a rational “functioning” of the infrastructure networks, neighborhoods and cities that were being built. This deterministic vision was implemented by economists, lawyers, and engineers. It cared little about whatever it was that was already existing; it was really not rooted in a sense of what’s “already there”, and tended to slap the rationality on a territory, rather than looking into its specificities. Gradually people exited this vision, for various reasons: some projects proved to be failures, whereas the public became increasingly vocal. Appeals were filed, which could block some projects – and we have recently seen this play out again in Stuttgart, Germany, where the train station project has been stalled for several years.

At the large scale of urban planning, development processes have been made more inclusive in order to avoid deadlocks and improve the prospective thinking.
Policymakers (local authorities, developers), architects and planners have learned to identify, understand and take into account the diverse dynamics already at work – whether geographical, historical, economic, or even political – as well as society. Processes opened up to include many more stakeholders, such as residents’ associations.

The work done in the design phase has therefore been enriched and, depending on the territory and the type of project at hand, new forms are being tested. For example, in Reims (the Mecca of champagne), the extension of the urban area to the south (up to the limits of the fast train station) has been discussed along various forms of participation: via workshops in the city hall, with the residents, the business world, and also various actors such as transport companies. The challenge was to bring together all the stakeholders, both to avoid bottlenecks and improve the project. There are always, of course, opponents, but even they expect something new. The whole challenge of participatory process is precisely to build consensus. Policymakers are now listening. And so the architect, in this context, is a force that spearheads proposals.

Asia is now in a phase of modernization and urbanization comparable to that experienced by Europe a few decades ago. Is Asia reviving the planning ambition of the sixties?

The ambition, yes. But not the methods. The solutions that are being devised over there are by no means simplistic. In fact, a mindset of “territorial project engineering”, which in Europe is developed on the scale of a neighborhood, gets to be applied, in Asia, across an entire province – the ultimate scale of excellence in planning.

In Vietnam, for example, we were consulted by Binh Duong province, which is conducting a reflection on its territorial development strategy. Policymakers are demonstrating a genuine concern for local identity. They are keen on avoiding anything remotely resembling some kind of “ready to wear” program. They are ambitious and frankly aim to modernize, but at the same time they are mindful about the secular organization of their territory, its history.

It is precisely for this kind of problem that people turn to us: they ask of us that we help them understand the land and its potential, and not to export ready-made solutions. In this regard, I would gladly say that the complexity we have been faced with on European projects has been formative and that this experience is precisely one of our key arguments to win a bid.

This may seem paradoxical, but what local decision-makers are expecting of us, who come from halfway across the world, is in a certain way to reveal their very territory to them, to make it talk. It is in this that the European culture of complexity turns out to be valuable: the questions we ask the contractor are questions we have seen emerge in discussions between stakeholders in the scope of our European projects. Similarly, the attention we pay to the continuity of space directly stems from our experience in Europe, where it has become a major concern and sometimes the single most important factor of a project.

Lastly, Europe provides us with references. The work that has been carried out in recent years around the Greater Paris Area, in particular, has sparked particular interest among our foreign customers: precisely because, on a scale of 1000 km2 and with twelve million inhabitants, the whole deal is about thinking new infrastructure and new dynamics in a context already saturated with equipment and housings. That is the very challenge of the time: to take what already exists into account, to not bully a territory, yet all the while being able to develop an ambitious project.

One readily understands that the constraints of working in Europe build up an extensive know-how, which becomes added value. But doesn’t this very added value run the risk of evaporating amidst the difficulty of taking into account cultural dimensions?

It is a challenge indeed, but not an obstacle. On the contrary: we join a project, land in a territory, without pretending to understand it a priori, and this approach allows us to pose questions that may seem obvious, that a local architect would never ask, but that are far from being irrelevant and want to emerge. The intelligence of the territory, which is the heart of our work, requires perspicacity as well as naivety. But acculturation remains one of our priorities.

Cela nous a conduit aussi à développer des méthodes : nous discutons très en amont avec les partenaires locaux, pour un vrai échange culturel : [deux fois deux points] comprendre ce qui se passe, ce qui ne changera pas, ce qui est ancré… Nos équipes, par ailleurs, sont très internationalisées, et c’est un atout.

So we discuss very early with local partners, among them architects and urbanists, aiming for a true cultural exchange: to understand what goes on, what is not going to change, what is anchored… Our teams also happen to be highly internationalized, and always include one or two citizens of the countries where we are operating.

But when you are designing a train station in China, is it a Chinese train station, or just one more station?

It is a Chinese train station, and you will realize that very quickly if you have the opportunity to travel to Shanghai, Qing Dao or Wuhan.

Let us pause a moment to consider Wuhan, precisely. A metropolis of central China, at the crossroads of nine provinces, it is a very ancient and legendary city, which is currently undergoing a very rapid development. So the new train station refers both to this tradition and to this spectacular growth. Thus, the imagery of the station revives a traditional composition, with an ample roof that plays with the sky, resting on a solid foundation rooted in the earth, and takes it to a very contemporary expression. The momentum of roofs, systematically organized into two large wings around an east-west central hall, illustrates one of the most famous myths of the local tradition. It evokes the flight of a large bird, a legendary yellow crane whose homecoming announced times of prosperity and happiness. Awash in symbolism, this roof made of nine parts also echoes the position of Wuhan at the crossroads of the nine provinces. Finally, the momentum conveyed by the image of the station is also, of course, that of contemporary Wuhan.

Wuhan train station, Chine (avril 2010) 
AREP – J.M. Duthilleul, E. Tricaud / Photo T. Chapuis. Rights : any use except publishing industry and commercial use.

Part of our work of course refers to international expertise. Some standards, some technical elements are to be found everywhere, and wherever it may be, a train station always has the same basic functions: trains come in and out, people come to board trains, to wait for friends and relatives, they need to be able to go fast but also to be able to wait comfortably, to buy food, newspapers, tickets… Similarly, a reflection on intermodal passenger transport is somewhat universal, even if between one country and the other, one will rather use bus, rickshaw, or car, in addition to the train itself. Yet what really differs, it’s the people. You need to think about all those who will spend time, cross it, stop there for a while. And their experience of it will heavily depend on their culture. In China, the quality of space must be Chinese. For example, in the Shanghai South Railway Station, the large single roof or the round shape on a square space are elements that are especially appealing to Chinese users. Symbolism is not the only thing that plays out here: it is also true of a certain relationship with spaces. We would never have designed such as a station in the West.

Shanghai Sud
Shanghai south train station, China (nov. 2007) AREP – Architects : J.M. Duthilleul, E. Tricaud : / photo D. Boy de La Tour. Rights : any use except advertizing and commercial use.

Let us be clear that this is not just about style. The basis of the quality of spaces is not stylistic elements, for example square versus round windows. It certainly does play out, in part: a given set of shapes will speak differently to a different audience. But beyond that there is a relationship to space has been shaped by customs, which in turn formed the characteristic ways of life that define a civilization. In China, particular attention is given to nature, to the elements: promoters with whom we talk speak about light and shadow, cardinal points, hot and cold atmospheres… Chinese people have a “mental map” which is quite different from ours.

The American anthropologist Edward T. Hall already mentioned that in his book The Hidden Dimension, which was published in the sixties: each urban civilization has developed its own ways of managing space, from the most public space to the most private one. This is particularly true in China, where cities are organized along a particular pattern: you have large areas that serve hutongs and small squares; entering the house opens onto a semi-private courtyard before leading to a second courtyard, a very private one. It is these rhythms, these uses of space that must be understood and respected if we want to design places that users can take ownership of, where they will feel well.

Does this mean that architects must comply with tradition?

No. Our clients ask us a Chinese modernity, a Vietnamese modernity. This means avoiding two risks: a stylistic gesticulation that would stick to the traditional fashion, or a disembodied modernity with no roots whatsoever. The spatial organization (i.e. the neighborhood, the building) must be able to provide an environment in which people feel good because it echoes their habits – even though ways of life have undergine deep changes in China and in Vietnam. In the case of a train station, it will for example play out with particularly relevancy in the waiting rooms, where not only a set of features but a way of inhabiting places are at stake – even if it were only for an hour or two.

At the same time, a train station is an area that relates to travels and one can play with the idea of a change of scene. And more broadly, we cannot refrain from importing models. After all, the castles of the Loire, which are the pride of the French, are of Italian style. Closer to our time, in the early twentieth century, the center of Rabat, the capital of Morocco, was designed by French planners and is a real success. But good examples of imported models are never mere copycats. They take into account contextual information which at once pertains to landscape and topographical, architectural particularities… What this is all about is, in the strongest sense of the term, integration.

So is this a meeting of sorts?

Yes it is, and all things considered this metaphor is representative of a certain way of looking at our work. I have mentioned the dialogue between stakeholders upstream of a project. But more broadly, an architect, an urban planner is someone who imagines and creates spaces where people will run across one another, meet, and exchange. Thus it is the quality of these exchanges, of these meetings that will make the success of these places.

This is an issue that clearly became manifest when we designed the Skolkovo center in Moscow. A cluster of innovation is by definition a meeting space that will connect different worlds with one another: researchers, entrepreneurs, business angels, a whole ecosystem that can develop or otherwise wither. It is therefore essential that everyone gets to speak, that people get to know each other, feel good and have many opportunities to meet various persons. This is what our project has attempted to make it possible, by conceiving this city complex around a central axis designed as an interface between different spaces that face one another. A live axis, which is structuring without being rigid, quite the contrary playing with curves and turns, a bit like the Ramblas of Barcelona. A space that you can cross, but also stop by; where you have a chance to meet someone, and when you do you can stop for a chat.

Skolkovo innovation center, Russia, North birdview (Jan. 2011) 
Architects : J.M. Duthilleul, E. Tricaud, M. Desvigne, Setec / Illus. N. and V. Donnot

This subtle dialectic between mobility and immobility is precisely what defines the contemporary city, in its successes as much as in its failures. Today we commute in various ways, as opposed to the cities of yesterday which roughly offered only two ways to get around: on foot or on horseback. The modes of access to mobility are also more diverse: there is public transportation, personal vehicles, but also from now on shared individual mobility with either self-service bikes or cars. A city, therefore, is an ensemble of flows to manage – and the “smart city” has shown us that these flows are numerous: transportation networks, energy networks, etc. But a city is also an array of places – where we live, work, shop, receive medical care, etc. In the twentieth century, the “city of several places” has been largely shaped by a misuse of mobility: we thought that fast mobility would allow us to dedicate separate places to monofunctional activities – and as a result what we got were segmented cities, with zoning. Thus we lost one of the inherent dimensions of the city: the meeting component, the mix.

One of the key challenges of today’s urban planning is to structure the city, and more broadly, the infrastructure and public spaces, so as to facilitate meetings. It is a challenge that is constantly renewed, because both the places and the exchanges evolve. Trade, which is one of the forms of this urban exchange, is for example undergoing a profound transformation with an increasing share of our shopping happening online. The attention given to the capacity of public space to reunite multiple uses, from special events to daily life, is a testimony to the vitality of urban forms. For architects or planners, this is an exciting challenge that requires of us that we listen very hard for weak signals. Today we are building train stations, buildings and neighborhoods; yet we do not presume to know what people will make of them exactly. This “ignorance” is by no means indifference: quite the contrary, it speaks volumes in terms of interest, curiosity, and attention. It keeps us alert.


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