Skip to Content

Import, export, passport

In Dubai earlier this year, officials tried to encourage the city’s commuters to take public transportation by offering prizes of pure gold. Meanwhile in Haiti, donkeys carry volunteers across washed-out roads to scout locations for new health clinics. In China, a contagion of copycat architectural styles is sweeping through massive residential developments with names like Thames Town, complete with Tudor mansions, Venetian canals, and a 300-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower. But in Bloemfontein, South Africa, builders are mixing up a recipe for local brick as they have for generations: red earth, sand, rubble, straw, and water. Mash thoroughly with bare feet until turned into clay.

Such is the range of opportunities — and capacities — that greet US architects working overseas.

The United States pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale recorded a global history of architectural practice; it found more US-designed projects in foreign countries over the past two decades than in the century before. The dizzying pace of international development surfaces knotty questions for American designers about materials and aesthetics, about human rights, about global sustainability. And the road map (or flight map, as the case may be) for resolving such questions isn’t clear.

Boston firms are strongly represented on the US pavilion’s roster, which shouldn’t be surprising. Local architects have pursued a series of global gold rushes since the Modernist sensibilities of The Architects Collaborative first appeared at the University of Baghdad in the 1950s. When the Arab oil embargo ended that boom, Malaysia, Singapore, and China became the new frontiers. Today the most lucrative opportunities seem to be in the United Arab Emirates and, again, China. (Apparently, the 18th century wasn’t the last time the China trade helped Boston thrive.)

We are told the world is flat — telecommunications, deregulation, and a vastly improved travel infrastructure have nearly eliminated the barriers that once impeded international trade. But designers also can’t help noticing a flattening of the architectural aesthetic, especially in emerging economies that consider generic towers of glass and steel a sign of progress. Persuading such clients to learn from the West’s mistakes — aesthetic, environmental, or social — takes some delicacy. Doing it without condescension takes grace.

Besides, US architects can learn plenty from the reverse commute of ideas. Much of the developing world has become a laboratory for operating within constraints of scarce money and materials, often to the benefit of the environment. In “Advanced Latin,” Justin McGuirk takes us on a tour of a continent often at the vanguard of responsible development. Builders using indigenous materials in Africa save on transport miles while preserving the local heritage.

It’s hard to consider globalization without thinking about urbanization. According to the United Nations, the world’s total urban area is expected to triple by 2030, accommodating (or not) a population of five billion. Today, China has at least 140 cities of a million people or more; the United States has nine. Mass concen-trations in urban settings increase the risks of so-called “natural” disasters, whether in Lagos, Banda Aceh, or Port-au-Prince. Architects should consider climate change, population migration, and substandard building practices when they work in dense, fragile set-tings, helping to prevent disasters, not just repair them.

It’s also difficult to be pure in this domain. If architects were to confine themselves to working in societies with a clean bill from Human Rights Watch, the list of no-go countries would be long, indeed (and include the United States). But architects need not be heedless of conditions in their host countries. Too many migrant workers are charged exorbitant entrance fees, live in unsafe housing, have their passports confiscated, or endure physical abuse. It may be too much to ask architects to divest their business from authoritarian regimes entirely, but as Jay Wickersham notes in his provocative essay “Code of Context,” debating a universal set of principles could be a good place to start.

The crosscultural value that global practice affords US architects can’t be measured in any currency. Those who want the richest experience should proceed with patience, flexibility, and humility. The American Century, after all, ended in 1999. ■