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Pairing Off for Sustainability

2024-06-24 10:09:00 Source:China Today Author:THIERRY MELOT
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Chinese “sustainable city” expertise is leading globally now and could contribute to African urban development with French expertise.


Thierry Melot’s design work of the architectural complex at the Hefei Binhu Times Square in Anhui Province, China.

made my first trip to China in the fall of 2004. I was in charge of a project that provided training to 150 Chinese graduates by French architecture firms within AFEX (French Architects for Export, a non-profit association). The director of an architectural institute in Urumqi in Xinjiang, northwest China, invited me to assist his organization to participate in projects in east China and was even mulling a partnership. I was familiar with French architecture projects abroad, but the sheer size of China, not to mention its economy, its rules and its language, was unknown to me. I was worried, thinking my medium-sized firm would not be sufficiently equipped to take on this new immersive challenge, so I shelved my plans until this institute finally invited me to China.

At that time, I was working on large urban public programs in Turkmenistan, and Xinjiang was not that far away. So in the fall of 2004, I had the chance, like Marco Polo, to discover China by entering it from the west. In Xinjiang, I was under the spell of the Silk Road and the legends surrounding it and amazed by China’s unfathomable beauty. At that time, China was home to the largest urban planning experiment in the world and the unimaginable challenges posed by Chinese cities were daunting. Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou aroused my interest by their scale, their energy, their history, and their heritage. As I flew back to Paris, I had the impression of returning to a provincial town. The center of the world had shifted, and my generation, blindly, hadn’t taken a bit of notice.

I explored the Chinese market one step at a time. Patiently I learned to develop a relationship with Chinese entrepreneurs, local officials, and industry experts. We had culture, humor, and joie de vivre in common and they soon trusted me and my expertise. After four years of efforts and mixed results, I managed to capitalize on friendly connections and a few good credentials. I recruited Li Liguo, a young Chinese architect from Shanghai’s Tongji University who interned for the agency while studying for a degree in France. He is a tenacious, intelligent and hardworking young man, and he helped me get a better grip of his country. We agreed that on his return to China, he would work with me to establish a foothold by submitting tenders for Chinese architectural projects.

In 2010, we passed the final stage for the Hengqin Island development project, the biggest urban planning contest of that year in China. The island is located in the Zhuhai Special Economic Zone in Guangdong Province, south China, with an area of approximately 110 square kilometers. Because we started from scratch, we threw all the agency’s resources into the battle to make an ambitious offer. We prioritized original green solutions that would prove decisive for China’s future urban green practices. The anchor of the project was the pre-existing rural landscape, so we dubbed it “The Memory of Water,” taken from the eponymous novel by Ying Chen, a Chinese-Canadian novelist born in Shanghai.

While most of our advisers thought we were doomed to fail, experts from Beijing and Shanghai were convinced by our arguments and our choices. The jury finally convinced the mayor of Zhuhai to award us the project. My relationship with the mayor, a man with an appealing personality, has since been one of mutual respect. He appointed me to the body of Zhuhai’s “strategic urban planners” and consulted me frequently on thorny issues.

Thierry Melot chairing a roundtable in Beijing. 

In the wake of this successful project, we gained the trust of the decision makers in some 30 Chinese cities and worked with them. Our original architecture firm then became known as IFAD, operating in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai. Li is its general manager and my main partner. He implemented an effective development strategy by creating the Sino-French Architectural Communication Society in 2015 to promote French know-how in China and organize seminars and lectures throughout the country. For 12 years, we have spread the merits of sustainable development and the concept of the “happy French city.” We also provided a stepping stone to young aspiring French architects in China.

The commitment made by China at the 2015 Paris UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) (to peak absolute emissions and cut intensity levels by 60-65 percent by 2030) confirmed that we have been right all along as this commitment echoed our pioneering stance. In his speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping kickstarted China’s sustainable development drive and the fight against global warming. Today, all Chinese cities have updated their master plans to that effect and we are currently seeing a contest in ecological awareness and awarding urban and architectural projects. Two decades ago, the word “sustainable” would have drawn sarcasm, but today Chinese “sustainable city” expertise is leading globally.

This is how we have been able to implement numerous urban projects in cities across China. We were also involved in developing a 40-km stretch on the left bank of the Pearl River in Guangdong, the Changli Jieshi National Park in Qinhuangdao (Hebei in north China) and the Songzhuang Creative Industries City in Beijing.

We have also participated in prestigious architectural projects such as Hefei’s Business City, Chengdu’s Business City, as well as Harbin Institute of Technology’s Shenzhen campus, together with the French architectural firm Ateliers 2/3/4 in Chengdu and Shenzhen. These projects are 10 times larger than our French operations at La Défense, the business district in Paris, the Confluence District in Lyons, or Orléans. It’s a scale that requires a sense of perspective and control. I drew from the repertoire of the great French architects of the 20th century such as Auguste Perret, Fernand Pouillon, and Eugène Beaudouin, who mastered large-scale projects and the technique of proportions, two of France’s secret strengths in architecture.

Going forward, we seek to export our expertise in mastering the strategic principles of the sustainable city paradigm that we have acquired in China. We are particularly targeting French-speaking Africa, where I spent 15 years working in eight countries. From Algiers to Kinshasa and from Dakar to Nairobi, we hope to participate in building the sustainable cities that the billion new inhabitants who will be born in the next 30 years will be expecting. The African continent must absolutely control its urban development. We are therefore looking for partners and investors in China who know what is crucial to a dynamic partnership, thus reaping the dividends of decades of Sino-French dialogue and 60 years of friendship since the establishment of the bilateral diplomatic relations.  


THIERRY MELOT is a French architect and urban planner who is the recipient of various honors such as Knight of the Legion of Honor and Prix Architecture Brittany.

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