Building the American Dream in China
Daniel Gillen is afraid of heights. The young American architect didn’t think to tell me this until we had already climbed up a construction ladder and started walking gingerly across the curved roof of an unfinished building in northeastern China.
It was a frigid day in late February, with temperatures dropping to 15 degrees below zero, and the roof’s undulating steel surface made it feel as if we were surfing on a frozen ocean wave — one that, at this height, promised a very hard landing.
“We’d never get away with this in the U.S.,” Gillen said with a nervous laugh.
From the roof, Gillen and I gazed out at a vast new city that didn’t exist two years ago. Row after row of 20-story apartment towers radiated out in every direction, in regimented monotony as far as we could see. There were hundreds of towers, almost all of them empty. “When I first came here two years ago, this area was just a bunch of fields covered with construction cranes,” said Gillen, who is 32. Now the farmlands outside Harbin have been transformed into one of the dozens of insta-cities rising around China. “Standing here,” Gillen said, “you just have to be in awe of what China can accomplish.”
The building beneath Gillen’s black leather boots inspired a different sort of wonder. A whimsical, torquing 660-foot-long tube sheathed in stainless steel, the Harbin Wood Sculpture Museum is the architectural fantasy of Gillen’s boss, Ma Yansong, and his team at MAD Architects in Beijing. The building’s design evokes the natural world — an iceberg, say, or a piece of driftwood — but given its backdrop, I couldn’t help thinking that it looked like a shimmering spaceship that had touched down unexpectedly in an alien urban landscape.
In that respect, it is not so different from Gillen himself, whose shaved head, muscular build and thick silver thumb ring make him something of an oddity in this city on China’s northern frontier. When Gillen was laid off in December 2008 by Asymptote Architecture, a New York firm, he hunkered down in his Brooklyn apartment, trying to stave off the “vibe of hopelessness.” Six months passed. His profession had been flattened by the financial crisis that put an abrupt halt to new construction. Gillen sent out dozens of résumés, but no offers came. Then, in early summer, he spotted a job posting for MAD Architects on a design Web site. The firm’s acronym seemed to sum up the outlandish proposition. “China was not on my radar at all,” he told me. The starting salary at MAD was half of what he earned in New York. Desperate, Gillen jumped.
Up on the museum’s sloping steel roof, his fear under control, Gillen marveled at his good fortune. “This kind of project,” he said, “could not be built anywhere else in the world today.” Nor could Gillen have found such an opportunity if he hadn’t journeyed 6,000 miles from home.