Global architecture firm Woods Bagot is taking the best of China to its Australian operations, building on nearly four decades of collaboration and cooperation.
Now ranked among the 10 largest architecture firms worldwide by BD World Architecture, Woods Bagot’s China origins can be traced back to 1980, when the company established an outpost in Hong Kong.
Global development director Mark Mitcheson-Low said Woods Bagot had established the studio to show potential Chinese clients a long-term commitment, however, in the early days he said it was difficult to win big projects.
“We went into China very early on when most of our competition was flying in and flying out,” Mr Mitcheson-Low told Australia China Business Review.
“Our model is different, we generally end up putting a studio where we are doing the work, so we have a local connection in the local culture.
“But when we were originally there, we weren’t getting the right level of client that we wanted.
“For some reason, there was this cultural thing where you had more credibility if you were flying someone in.
“But after a certain amount of time that wore thin, clients didn’t want to wait for two weeks to speak to someone, they wanted to speak to someone right now.”
Mr Mitcheson-Low said Woods Bagot provided the best of both worlds for Chinese developers – flying specialists in from Australia, San Francisco and New York, but also installing studio leaders in China, Pearl Huang and Jean Weng, who had been educated in Australia.
“They’d been trained overseas, they built a local team and we still had the access to fly in overseas talent on special projects,” he said.
“That wasn’t a hurdle, it was just an education, but I think because we did that, we have a lot more recognition in the market than others.”
Studios in Shanghai and Beijing soon followed the Hong Kong office, as Woods Bagot swiftly expanded to become a significant player.
Today, Mr Mitcheson-Low said Woods Bagot was responsible for designing between 300 and 400 towers that are under construction across China, with its three studios supporting operations throughout the entire country.
He said there were about 300 Woods Bagot employees in China, but there was so much work being won that the three studios were being supported by architects in Perth and Singapore.
That global approach has created a range of reciprocal opportunities, with major Chinese clients interested in expanding their operations across borders.
One of those clients was development giant Greenland, who Woods Bagot housed in its Sydney studio as the Shanghai-headquartered company established its Australian operations in 2012.
More recently, Woods Bagot Singapore associate principal Justin Szeremeta met with Fremantle Ports to present the firm’s learnings from the Dalian International Cruise Centre, a sprawling 450,000 square metre mixed-use development incorporating a cruise terminal with residential apartments, hotel accommodation and public amenities such as retail and hospitality.
Mr Mitcheson-Low said the relationship that had been built from taking Australian expertise to China had now been flipped on its head, with the firm not only taking its knowledge from China to Australia but also bringing developers along with it.
“It’s reciprocal as far as (Chinese developers) want to get into the places that we are,” Mr Mitcheson-Low said.
“We have a footprint that covers all the places that they want to be in, but it does rely on good relations back in China as well.
“That’s what we can bring to Chinese clients coming to Australia, and generally we have Chinese architects in most of our studios, which helps us get back into China.
“Also, our expertise is being sought after in China because of our sector knowledge, particularly in hospitality, hotels, health and aged care.”
But while Mr Mitcheson-Low said there was strong desire for Chinese developers to invest in Australia, particularly those that can navigate the Chinese government’s restrictions on capital outflows, there were certain differences between the two countries that posed new challenges.
Not the least of those challenges, he said, was scale, which provided an insight into why major Chinese developers like Greenland, or Dalian Wanda Group, which sold off its Australian operations early this year, had bypassed Perth.
“When you’re in China they like big cities, and they see Sydney or Melbourne as big cities and see more opportunities there,” Mr Mitcheson-Low said.
“They are used to being able to build it and they will come in China.
“In the Perth market, they wouldn’t see that the city is big enough to bring the demand.
“Chinese developers aren’t interested in a three-storey building out in the suburbs – why would they bother?
“It’s got to be something substantial and they’re also looking for the hook – why should I do it there and not over there?
“They are also in Canada, the US, in all of those big cities. They come from a big city environment so unless it’s a substantial project it’s not going to get any interest.”