11: Overland to China


Hightower So last year we started this little podcast about architecture. It was a lot of fun to make so we kept cranking out new episodes. Along the way we were able to tell stories about fireworks, fracking and the fake Alamo they built out in Brackettville. Along the way we also met some really cool people.


That’s what we hope to keep doing this season as well. We have some really exciting things in the pipeline for 2016. Like we’re going to spend some time learning about the crazy system of tunnels and rotating steel claws that keeps downtown San Antonio from flooding…


We’re going to follow along as my brother and I do a little breaking an entering…


Carlton …we’re going into a house we don’t own… Hello?


Hightower And we may even travel up to the International Space Station to enjoy the view…


Reid …you're just scrambling to get to a window and look back at the Earth and just see it. Whether it's day or night, it doesn't matter and so once you're on board that's...you just got to look at that view. It's just so incredible.


Hightower But for the second season’s premiere episode, we’ll start by revisiting someone we’ve already met.


Last year we spoke with an architect by the name of James Andrews.


James Andrews My name is James Andrews and I’m a principal at Overland Partners Architects, San Antonio.


Hightower Back in Episode One James served as my token British architect that helped explain the meaning of a Winston Churchill quote. He also went to great lengths to explain to me how the game of cricket is played…


…but I still have no clue what’s going on.


In that first episode we learned where James had come from, but we also got a hint of the places where he is going.


And one of the places he’s been going to a lot lately is China.


And that is what we’re going to talk about on this, the eleventh episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.


I’m Brantley Hightower.


Overland Partners was founded in San Antonio in 1987. I asked Tim Blonkvist – one of the firm’s original founding partners – if they ever thought their little upstart design firm would be doing work on the other side of the world.


Tim No. It was never on our radar… we were really thinking that we'd be more of a Texas-based firm. We were all from Texas, and had all of our relationships here in Texas.


Hightower Before starting Overland, Tim worked for several years at a big architecture office in New York City. He had even worked on a project or two in China back in 1980s. But by 2010 that was all a distant memory.


That all changed when he was on vacation and received a mysterious text in the middle of the night.


Tim …I was in Puerto Vallarta… and the text came in at about two o'clock in the morning. And it woke me up to the little beep and I looked over and it said, "Do you want to make footsteps across China?" and I thought, "What does that mean? That must be a wrong number."


Hightower It turned out it wasn’t a wrong number. And it turned out not all off his relationships were in Texas.


As it happened, the text was from a friend and colleague of Tim’s from his time in New York. Tim’s buddy was himself Chinese and had moved to Shanghai to become a real estate consultant. He had followed the work of Overland through the years and when he was asked to make a recommendation for an architect to help plan a new town, he suggested a particular firm in San Antonio. Based on his recommendation, the Chinese developers were ready to hire Overland, sight unseen.


Tim …He said, "Just come. If you'll come the job is yours," and so we decided to go… and we went over there for the beginning of this great, new adventure.


Hightower It was an exciting time to be working in China. By the early 2000s the country’s economy was growing rapidly. It’s cities were exploding in population as 300 million people – basically the population of the entire United States – were moving from its countryside and into its urban centers. To accommodate a migration of this scale, China needed lots of buildings. Yes it needed new apartments and shops and schools, but to accommodate 300 million people you need new entire cities as well.


Complicating the issue for China was that because the country’s Cultural Revolution, the workforce lacked a generation of senior architects with the creative skills and experience necessary to conceptualize the type of large-scale urban projects the country now needed. And so Chinese clients started looking to the other side of the Pacific for help.


For American architects, working at this scale was an exciting opportunity.


Tim I think here in America, we are so used to doing individual buildings and that a lot of times when we're working in the context of cities, the city's already there.


Hightower But in China, often the city wasn’t there. And so American architects had the freedom to create entire communities from scratch. This was an incredibly tempting proposition, especially when domestic work started to dry up after the 2008 financial crisis.


But if American architects were unaccustomed to the scale of work being done in China, they were also unaccustomed to its pace.


Tim And we realized that we would draw things and sketch them out, and when we returned they were already under construction. They had bulldozers. They were building the streets. They were carving away the likes of things of things that we had drawn and we realized, "This is serious. They're really going to do this."


It was frightening. We thought, "Oh my, gosh. This isn't just like drawing a sketch and not believing it'll ever happen. They're going to build this stuff and people are going to live in it and these places are going to be there for hundreds or more years." So we really began to understand the importance of the role that we were going to be playing...


Hightower To meet the rapid pace of development, American architects would often simply import western architectural design solutions to solve distinctly eastern design problems. In many cases this is exactly what their Chinese clients wanted – they were looking to recreate the “glitz” of American tourist destinations such as New York or more disturbingly, Las Vegas. They wanted to do this even if that type of development clashed with the historic fabric of their existing city.


This was something Overland actively sought to avoid. James Andrews and the rest of his team at Overland would work hard with their Chinese clients to understand what was truly good about an existing place and use that as the starting point for their design.


James Our process is we want to go and study the place. We want to study the culture. We want to study the history. We want to study the materials that are indigenous to that area. We want to understand what the crafts are that are there and what the historical crafts were that were there.


Hightower Overland’s goal was to work with local leaders as well as residents to preserve and integrate the feel of an existing city in a new development. They would reflect on what was there, they would restore what was good and they would enhance what needed to be improved or modernized. Here again is Tim Blonkvist.


Tim At the end of the day our goal is not to paint a portrait of our self, but to paint a portrait of the people that are going to be using this. And so we have a process that we like to go through and the first thing is to listen to your landscape, and every site and every client, they have stories that predate our work together and as we uncover and celebrate these stories, they become rich in their meaning.


Hightower Many architects who come to China are excited by the freedom that comes with working with a blank slate. Overland came to China and recognized that the slate wasn’t blank at all. It was just new to them. And they worked hard to understand it.


Tim I think we are drawn to the opportunity to go into a place and to create something which will actually transform the area, and would also be a model. A model of sustainability. A model of interaction, and we would be able to test this and know it was successful by how the people use it. Not by whether it wins and award or whether it's photographed in an architectural publication. The true test is are people coming there? Are they using it? Are they loving it? Do they want to take care of it?


Hightower Even if Overland sought to avoid the direct import of American ideas to China, sometimes that was the most appropriate thing to do.


When Overland first visited Lijang in southwestern China they saw a community that was focused on a river. Streets of the old town were oriented with views toward the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – the source of their water.


And although Jade Dragon Snow Mountain sounds like a totally made up name, it actually does exist. I looked it up.


Anyway, Overland’s client in Lijang wanted to create a new town development that allowed for a more direct experience of their river. They had identified several examples of cities built on canals and wanted to create something similar in the redevelopment of their city.


Here again is James Andrews.


James When we were engaged to do that project, we studied river walks around the world, or great cities that have wonderful river ways, like Bruges and Amsterdam and even Tongli in China. We compiled a series of best practices and really dug in deep to understand what it was that made these places so special and memorable.


Hightower What Overland understood – and what they helped their client understand – is that the way their buildings related to the water was very different than in the other river-based cities that they admired.


James And the things that they were doing… that were fundamentally different were they disconnected the people from the water. The water was a long way below you so you felt you were walking above the water and not as you do in San Antonio where you feel almost level with the water. And at times, you're stepping over water, very, very engaging.


Hightower The more they developed the idea with the client, the more the San Antonio River Walk made sense as model for them to follow.


James We also learned from San Antonio, obviously, as we appreciate here in San Antonio the importance of the setbacks to allow the sun to penetrate into the river itself to create warmer, nicer, sunny places. And we explained to them the importance of setting back some of their buildings from the river and creating a change of scale as you got closer to the water itself.


We really studied those aspects – and many, many others – and tried to figure out how do we place those over the traditional influences of the Nanjing River and come up with something that was a very compelling and experiential space.


Hightower Overland has always has a practice that was based on a process and on a series of values they bring to every project. Early on they realized that this framework allowed them to design a wide range of projects throughout Texas and eventually, throughout the United States. Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were perfecting a way to work anywhere in the world.


But as they began to deploy this process in places like China, it forced them to refine that process and clarify those values.


James Well, we've always had a well-defined process, but having to explain that in China when they were really looking for the big move, the big ta-da, "This is what it's going to look like," by having to explain that to them in China, it really helped us back here as well to be able to really focus on that as a differentiator and how we liked to work and how we believed we uncovered and unlocked the embedded potential in projects. It was a good reminder to us that that was very, very important to who we were and how we worked.


Hightower Part of the appeal of traveling is that it allows you to see the world and experience new things. But the value of traveling is how it changes your life when you come back home. It helps you better understand your place in the world and how your view of it is unique.


Regardless of where Overland travels to for a project, it is always done in the service of people. James and Tim have both come to understand that no matter where those people are from, at the end of the day they all want the same things. And when people work together to create something new, they grow closer together as people as well.


Tim It's almost like a husband and wife when they create a child. That child is something they always will have in common and it's the basis of a long-term relationship and a commitment. So I think that our attitude is that we do feel like that we have a process that's a better way. A better way meaning that this ability to learn, to research, to get to know to draw them in, to be a part of to create something together, to build these long-term relationships is that's how we want to live our life.


Thanks today to James Andrews and Tim Blonkvist of Overland Partners. James is going to be giving a talk at this year’s TEDx San Antonio Spring Main Event on March 5 and you should definitely check that out. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes along with a link to the article I wrote for the Rivard Report that served as the starting point for this episode.


The music today was by Chris Zabriskie with a bit of Elvis Presley thrown in for good measure.


Elvis Well thank you, Brantley. Thank you. Thank you very much…


The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at Hi dot Works.


Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.