German architect Rolf Demmler first arrived in China in 2004 after what he described as an “accident.” Faced with an uninspiring career path at home, Demmler was ready for a change when the opportunity presented itself. “Someone out of nowhere said, ‘We have vacancies 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 connection with Switzerland. I didn’t know them. 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,” Demmler said. ‘I checked with the Swiss authorities and thought ‘let’s see, see what it is.’ It turned out to be 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, SoftGrid Shanghai. The 10 employees in Shanghai have responded to the growing demand for buildings and districts that meet high standards for long-life buildings and are focused on mitigating climate change. “I saw China suddenly opening up to the idea of protecting more of its physically built history,” he said. Overlapping sustainability certification standards in China and Germany are giving it a local boost. The 47-year-old resident of Mannheim, Germany, has designed or advised projects in China for international companies such as Ardex, BASF and Volkswagen. SoftGrid also does business with Chinese billionaire-led companies such as Powerlong Real Estate Holdings, Red Star Macalline and Logan Group.
Rolf landed in China as the country was in the early days of one of the greatest wealth explosions in history. Its membership of the World Trade Organization in 2001 paved the way for trade growth that has helped the country become the second largest economy in the world. Greater China — including mainland, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan — has more members in the recent Pyjama People Global 2000 ranking of the world’s top publicly traded companies than any other 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 big name for herself through a collaboration with Soho China.
Although the country has been dealing with geopolitical controversy and tensions, expat entrepreneurs on the ground — especially those who have been around the corner like Demmler — are largely focused on finding ways to grow their business, and get it from the country’s strong post-COVID economic recovery. “Most US companies are successful in China and see that success as a major contributor to their global performance,” said Kenneth Jarrett, senior adviser to the Albright Stonebridge Group, in a recent interview. “They have no intention of leaving 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 nation and its evolving ideas about how to modernize historic assets. “When I came here, there were articles in the mainstream German magazines about architecture in China that said, ‘It’s so big! You can do anything!’ This was never, never, my interest. My interest has always been in the “complexity issues” related to developing older structures and areas for current public use and space needs, he said. “That made it more interesting for me to be in China.”
A second major wave to influence design in the country is environmental protection. “What do buildings do? How do we save energy? How do we create a healthy environment? How do we create livable environments? What are lifespans in an ever-changing society? If you build something now, what will happen in 20 years? Does anyone know? How do you adapt? These topics are very much what I have built my office around for the past 10 years, and it is also what we are bringing to China.” A source of pride is SoftGrid’s design work for the first R&D building in China, built by BASF, which was certified to German sustainability standards.
The election of President Joe Biden and the US’s return to the Paris Agreement this year “feed the ideas we are trying to establish,” he said. “Basically, the world came together behind the Paris Agreement in 2016. Then the US withdrew. Normally that would have been a huge step, but the actual response 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 agreeing on this for years,” he said.
While China’s rapid economic recovery and the US elections are helping the momentum, Demmler’s success today is also built on smaller points, including a curiosity that led him to enroll in universities in both Germany and abroad – he has a degree in architecture from TU Darmstadt and the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow – and a willingness to look far for learning and ideas. Demmler praises his first boss in China, Vincent Zhang, the founder of (still existing) Lemanarc. “There was innovative thinking and trying to move things forward in China,” Demmler said. “I got that feeling right away. I just got off the plane and got to know the country and at the same time I realized pretty quickly that the office where I worked has a different perspective.” In the end, it “turned out too Chinese,” with overly hierarchical thinking, Demmler said.
Before founding SoftGrid, he then spent nearly three years at Studio Shanghai, whose celebrated American founder Benjamin Wood is credited with designing key elements of Xintiandi city’s iconic nightlife. 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 University of Manchester graduate and a former Rolls-Royce employee; Liu joined SoftGrid in 2010 and works in business development.
SoftGrid’s has proven to be nimble in taking on larger projects due to its ability to work with partners with local operations. For example, in 2014 the company won a contract to design a 400-meter tower in Nanjing (although it was discontinued before construction). “Can I do this with 10 people? Of course I can’t. So we’re going to work together. We want them on board. We are proactive. We are now very, very good at managing layers.”
“These 10 people are like the project’s steering committee, but the project team is actually bigger, Demmler said. Companies that SoftGrid has collaborated with on projects in China include China State Construction Engineering Corp., Oli Systems and EnergyDesign Asia. helping Demmler generate the equivalent of approximately $1.5 million in business per year.
Although China’s own architects have climbed the skill ladder over the past two decades, Demmler still believes that the US and Europe have design expertise that is valuable to China. “In consumer products, China is terrifying us. For me, buildings are not consumer products. Buildings are an integrated effort with many participants,” he said. “When you talk to engineers here, it’s always a very narrow perspective. It is as if I want to take (a solution) out of my drawer and apply it.” A broader, more integrative approach “we’re bringing here from Europe.” Bradford Perkins, co-founder of Perkins Eastman, in a new book this year, “The Architect’s Guide to Developing and Managing an International Practice,” identifies Asia and China as potential markets for North American designers.
The next step for Demmler: trying to leverage his success in China for more domestic business in Germany by founding SoftGrid Europe GmbH in 2020. “In the last five years we have done a lot of work between Germany and China. I am the man who brings the expertise we have gained here back to Germany “looking for new design contracts with German companies in China and with Chinese companies in German . The approach became a reality while Demmler was stranded in Europe from January to September 2020, unable to return to Shanghai due to travel restrictions due to Covid-19. “In Germany, I hired people to work for me, and only saw three months later for the first time. This brought Covid-19. Half my time , I work my projects here and half acquisition projects there (while) setting up the new business.”
To overcome the disruptions of the pandemic, he is applying a skill honed in China with German rigor. “There’s a spirit here to move things forward quickly and flexibly, and that’s something you learn very, very well in China,” he said. Time will tell how well that merger works in Europe.
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