Architects reflect on 20 years in Shanghai


SHANGHAI — For the last two decades, an Italian architectural studio has been at the forefront of innovation in designing landmark buildings in China.

Andrea Destefanis and Filippo Gabbiani first came to Shanghai in 2002 to take part in the renovation of the century-old historical building Bund 18, which later won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award. The project served as the catalyst for their decision to set up Kokai Studio in the city.

“We like the energy of Shanghai,” said Destefanis, who recognized early on China’s need for projects, as well as the importance of preserving historical buildings while designing new ones.

Over the last 20 years, Kokai has participated in 350 construction projects, including several new landmarks in various cities across China. The main ones include K11, an art shopping mall concept unlike the traditional shopping center, and the Jianyeli Hotel, one of the first hotels to open on Longtang, an alleyway in Shanghai’s old residential district.

Destefanis prefers to be involved with meaningful projects that redefine or restore a part of the city, and Shanghai has provided him with opportunities to pursue this passion.

“We always say to our clients that we don’t design for them, we design for their end users,” Destefanis said.

In his view, the need in terms of design has changed a lot in China over the last 20 years.

“In the past, people enjoyed going to a commercial space, a shopping mall that was like a box or a closed environment. What we have done is break open this box, making the malls a part of the city and opening them to their surroundings,” he said.

Destefanis believes that this change in approach is suited to current trends.

“People now prefer to have a connection to the city and to spend more time outdoors as the environment is improving.”

As increasing numbers of Chinese people travel around the world, Destefanis is finding it more challenging to satisfy their evolving architectural tastes.

“It is hard to surprise people and give them novel projects. Another very challenging part is that young Chinese designers are getting better, so competition is getting fiercer,” he added.

Kokai started with three people and now employs 50 designers and architects.

Destefanis and Gabbiani are optimistic about the future of the Chinese construction market. Even during the difficulties of the COVID-19 epidemic, the studio did not lay off any employees.

“We believe that we still have a lot of work to do in China,” Destefanis said.


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