“Perfect introduction”, climatic pressure contributes to the success of the architect


German architect Rolf Demmler first arrived in China in 2004 after what he called an “accident”. Faced with an uninteresting career trajectory at home, Demmler was ready for a change when the opportunity presented itself. “Someone out of nowhere said, ‘We have jobs in China,’” he recalls in a recent interview in Shanghai. “It qualified as a Swiss company. I had worked in Switzerland, one of my teachers was Swiss and I had some sort of affiliation with Switzerland. I didn’t know them. They didn’t want a portfolio, just an email. I hadn’t prepared anything, but I tried.

“I Googled them, but there was nothing in Switzerland,” Demmler said. “I checked with the Swiss authorities thinking ‘let’s go see, let’s see what this is.’ It turned out to be a Chinese who had started in Switzerland. This is what made it a Swiss office. It was a start-up, but it was good enough for me. Just three weeks later, “I was here” in Shanghai, Demmler smiled. “It was the perfect introduction to China.”

Seventeen years later, Demmler runs his own start-up, SoftGrid Shanghai. Its 10 employees in Shanghai focused on the growing demand for buildings and neighborhoods that aim to meet high standards of building longevity and aim to limit climate change. “I saw China suddenly open up to the idea of ​​further protecting its physical history,” he said. The overlapping certification standards for sustainability in China and Germany give it a local boost. The 47-year-old, native of Mannheim, Germany, has designed or consulted on projects in China for international companies such as Ardex, BASF, Disney and Volkswagen. SoftGrid also does business with companies run by Chinese billionaires such as Powerlong Real Estate Holdings, Red Star Macalline, and Logan Group.

Rolf landed in China as the country was at the start of one of the biggest wealth explosions in history. Its membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001 paved the way for trade growth that helped make the country the world’s second-largest economy. Greater China – including the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan – has more members of the recent Forbes Global 2000 ranking of the world’s best publicly traded companies than any other country. The continent already has the second highest number of billionaires in the world. Many of the world’s largest architectural firms have benefited from its construction boom: Gensler, Perkins + Will, SOM, HOK and Perkins Eastman have operations in China; Before her death in 2016, Anglo-Iraqi designer Zaha Hadid made a name for herself through a partnership with Soho China.

Although the country faces controversy and geopolitical tensions, expatriate entrepreneurs on the ground – especially those who have toured the neighborhood like Demmler – are largely focused on finding ways to grow their businesses and capitalize on of the country’s strong economic recovery after COVID. . “The majority of American companies are successful in China and see this success as an important factor in their global performance,” said Kenneth Jarrett, senior advisor to Albright Stonebridge Group, in a recent interview. “They are not looking to leave the Chinese market.”

Since arriving in China, Demmler says one of his own areas of interest has been the complexity of society in the world’s most populous nation and his evolving ideas on how to modernize historic assets. “When I first came here, there were articles in the big German magazines about architecture in China, saying, ‘This is so big! You can do anything! ‘ It was never my interest. My interest has always been “complexity issues” which involve changing structures and older areas for today’s public use and space needs, he said. “It made it more interesting for me to be in China.”

A second big wave to influence design in the country has been the protection of the environment. “What are buildings used for? How do we conserve energy? How do we create healthy environments? How do we create livable environments? In a constantly changing society, what does life expectancy build? If you build something now, what will happen in 20 years? Does anyone know? How do you adjust? These topics are largely what I have built my office on for the past 10 years, and this is also what we bring to China. A source of pride is SoftGrid’s design work on the first R&D building in China built by BASF that has been certified by German sustainability standards.

The election of President Joe Biden and the return of the United States to the Paris Agreement this year “fuel the ideas that we are trying to establish,” he said. “Basically the world came together behind the Paris Agreement in 2016. Then the United States withdrew. Normally this would have been a huge step, but the real reaction was, “So what? For China, it was too late, and for Europe, it was too late. For China, the central government cannot just back down. The EU and China have been on the same wavelength on this for several years, ”he said.

While China’s rapid economic recovery and U.S. elections are helping to build momentum, Demmler’s success today has also been built from smaller points along the way, including a curiosity that has him. brought to enroll in German and foreign universities – he graduated in architecture from TU. Darmstadt and the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow – and a willingness to look far for learning and ideas. Demmler praises his first boss in China, Vincent Zhang, the (still surviving) founder of Lemanarc. “There was innovative thinking and efforts to get things done in China,” Demmler said. “I got that feeling right away. As soon as I got off the plane, I was able to get to know the country and yet, at the same time, realize quite quickly that the office I worked for has a different perspective. Eventually, “it turned out to be too Chinese,” with excessive hierarchical thinking, Demmler said.

Prior to founding SoftGrid, he then spent nearly three years at Studio Shanghai, where famous American founder Benjamin Wood is credited with designing key elements of the iconic nightlife district of Xintiandi. Demmler’s wife Liu Dong – the couple married in 2011 – was another asset. The mother of their two trilingual children (German, Chinese, English) is a graduate of the University of Manchester and a former Rolls-Royce employee; Liu joined SoftGrid in 2010 and works in business development.

SoftGrid’s has proven to be agile in taking on larger projects due to its ability to work with partners with local operations. In 2014, for example, the company won a contract to design a 400-meter tower in Nanjing (although it was shut down before it was built). “Can I do it with 10 people?” Of course, I can’t. So, we join forces. We want them on board. We are proactive. We are now very, very good at managing layers.

“These 10 people are like the steering committee of the project, but the project team is actually bigger,” said Demmler. Companies with which SoftGrid has partnered on projects in China include China State Construction Engineering Corp., Oli Systems, and EnergyDesign Asia. These links help Demmler generate the equivalent of approximately $ 1.5 million in revenue per year.

Although China’s own architects have risen through the ranks over the past two decades, Demmler still believes that the United States and Europe have design expertise that is valuable to China. “In consumer products, China is beating us up. For me, buildings are not consumer products. The buildings are an integrated effort with many participants, ”he said. “If you talk to the engineers here, it’s always a very narrow perspective. It’s like I want to take (a solution) out of my drawer and apply it. A broader and more integrative approach “is something we bring here from Europe”. Perkins Eastman co-founder Bradford Perkins in a new book this year, “An Architect’s Guide to Developing and Managing an International Firm,” also identifies Asia and China as potential markets for North American designers.

Next step for Demmler: to try to build on its success in China to expand its business in Germany by establishing SoftGrid Europe GmbH in 2020. “Over the past five years, we have done a lot of work between Germany and China. I am. the guy bringing the expertise we have gained here in Germany “looking for new design contracts with German companies in China as well as Chinese companies in German. The approach came to fruition as Demmler was stranded in Europe from January to September 2020, unable to return to Shanghai due to travel restrictions linked to Covid-19. “In Germany I was hiring people to work for me, then I saw for the first time only three months later. That’s what Covid-19 has brought. Half of my time I work on my projects here and I acquire half of the projects there (during) the creation of the new company.

To overcome the disruptions of the pandemic, he applies a know-how refined in China with German thoroughness. “There is a spirit here to get things done quickly and flexibly, and that something that you learn in China, very, very well,” he said. Time will tell how well this merger works in Europe.

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