The German architect Rolf Demmler came to China for the first time in 2004 after an “accident”. With an uninspiring career at home, Demmler was ready for a change when the opportunity arose. “Someone out of nowhere said, ‘We have jobs in China,’” he recalled in a recent interview in Shanghai. “It called itself a Swiss company. I had worked in Switzerland, one of my professors was Swiss, and I had a kind of affiliation with Switzerland. I didn’t know her. 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,” said Demmler. “I asked the Swiss authorities and thought: ‘Let’s see what it is.’ It turned out that it was a Chinese who started in Switzerland. That 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 company SoftGrid Shanghai. Its 10 employees in Shanghai have adapted to the growing demand for buildings and districts that meet high standards for the longevity of buildings and limit climate change. “I saw China suddenly open up to the idea of protecting more of its physically built history,” he said. Overlapping sustainability certification standards in China and Germany give it a local boost. The 47-year-old from Mannheim has designed or advised projects in China for international companies such as Ardex, BASF, Disney and Volkswagen. SoftGrid also does business with Chinese billionaire companies such as Powerlong Real Estate Holdings, Red Star Macalline, and Logan Group.
Rolf landed in China when the country was in for one of the greatest asset explosions in history in the early days. His membership of the World Trade Organization in 2001 paved the way for trade growth that has helped make the country the second largest economy in the world. Greater China – including mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan – has more members in the recent Advance Guide Global 2000 ranking of the world’s top publicly traded companies than any single country. The mainland already has the second largest number of billionaires in the world. Many of the world’s largest architectural firms have benefited from the construction boom: Gensler, Perkins + Will, SOM, HOK and Perkins Eastman have offices in China; Before her death in 2016, British-Iraqi designer Zaha Hadid made a name for herself through a partnership with Soho China.
While the country faces geopolitical controversy and tension, local expat entrepreneurs – especially those who have been around like Demmler – are primarily focused on finding ways to grow their business and are benefiting from the strong economic recovery in the country after COVID. . “Most US companies are successful in China and see this success as an important contribution to their global performance,” said Kenneth Jarrett, Senior Advisor of the Albright Stonebridge Group, in a recent interview. “You don’t want to leave the Chinese market.”
Since arriving in China, Demmler says, one of his own focuses has been the complexity of society in the world’s most populous country and its evolving ideas for modernizing historical assets. “When I came here, there were articles in mainstream German magazines about architecture in China that said, ‘It’s so big! You can do everything!’ That was never my interest. I have always been interested in the “complexity problems”, which are about the development of older structures and areas for today’s public use and space requirements, he said. “That made it more interesting for me to be in China.”
A second big wave that has influenced design in the country is environmental protection. “What do buildings do? How do we save energy? How do we create healthy environments? How do we design liveable environments? What are buildings in a constantly changing society? If you build something now, what will happen in 20 years? Does somebody know? How do you adapt? I have built my office around these topics over the past 10 years and we are also bringing it to China. ”A source of pride is SoftGrid’s design work for the first R&D building in China that was built by BASF and certified according to German sustainability standards.
The election of President Joe Biden and the US return to the Paris Agreement this year “are fueling the ideas we are trying to establish,” he said. “Basically, in 2016, the world teamed up behind the Paris Agreement. Then the US withdrew. Normally it would have been a giant step, but the real reaction was, ‘So what?’ It was too late for China and too late for Europe. For China, the central government cannot simply withdraw. The EU and China have been on the same side in this regard for several years, ”he said.
Though China’s rapid economic recovery and US elections add momentum, Demmler’s success today is also based on minor points along the way, including a curiosity that led him to enroll in universities both at home and abroad – he has a degree in architecture from TU Darmstadt and the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow – and the willingness to look into the distance for knowledge and ideas. Demmler praises his first boss in China, Vincent Zhang, the founder of (still surviving) Lemanarc. “In China there was innovative thinking and trying to move things forward,” said Demmler. “I got that feeling straight away. Just as I got off the plane, I was able to get to know the country and at the same time quickly realize that the office I worked for has a different perspective. ”At some point it was“ too Chinese ”, with excessive hierarchical thinking, said Demmler .
Before founding SoftGrid, he next spent nearly three years at Studio Shanghai, whose celebrated American founder Benjamin Wood designed the key elements of the legendary Xintiandi nightlife district. Demmler’s wife, Liu Dong – the couple married in 2011 – was another plus. The mother of their two trilingual children (German, Chinese, English) is a graduate of Manchester University and a former Rolls-Royce employee; Liu joined SoftGrid in 2010 and works in business development.
SoftGrid has proven to be agile in taking on larger projects because it can work with local partners. In 2014, for example, the company received an order to design a 400-meter-high tower in Nanjing (but it was stopped before construction). “Can I do this with 10 people? Of course I can’t. So let’s get together. We want them on board. We are proactive. We’re very, very good at managing shifts now. ”
“These 10 people are like the steering committee of the project, but the project team is actually bigger,” said Demmler. Companies that SoftGrid has partnered with on China projects include China State Construction Engineering Corp., Oli Systems, and EnergyDesign Asia. These connections help Demmler generate the equivalent of about $ 1.5 million in business annually.
Although China’s own architects have risen over the past two decades, Demmler still believes that the US and Europe have design skills that are valuable to China. “When it comes to consumer goods, China beats us to hell. For me, buildings are not consumer goods. Buildings are an integrated effort with many participants, ”he said. “When you talk to engineers here, it’s always a very narrow perspective. It’s like pulling (a solution) out of my drawer and applying it. ”A broader, more inclusive approach“ we’re bringing here from Europe ”. Bradford Perkins, co-founder of Perkins Eastman, names Asia and China as potential markets for North American designers in this year’s book “The Architect’s Guide to Developing and Managing an International Practice”.
Next up for Demmler: The attempt to use his success in China for more domestic business in Germany by founding SoftGrid Europe GmbH in 2020. “In the last five years we have worked a lot between Germany and China. I’m the guy who brings the know-how we have acquired back to Germany “looking for new design contracts with German companies in China as well as with Chinese companies in Germany. The approach came about when Demmler came from Jan.-Sept . Stranded in Europe in 2020 He was unable to return to Shanghai due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. “In Germany, I hired people to work for me and then saw them for the first time just three months later. That brought Covid-19. Half of my time. “, I work on my projects here and acquire half there (while the new company is being set up).
In order to overcome the disruptions of the pandemic, he applies a skill that was meticulously learned in China in Germany. “The spirit here is to move things forward quickly and flexibly, and you learn that very, very well in China,” he said. Time will tell how well this merger works in Europe.
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