Keith Campbell

Keith Campbell, a vice president with the architectural design firm RTKL, stands next to drawings of his project in China, "Colorful Yunnan Top City," at the company's Chicago office (Chicago Tribune photo by Alex Garcia / August 12, 2011)

Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc. recently beat two international rivals to win a contract to design an iconic structure for a city along the Yangtze River in China.

Last winter, RTKL and two other architectural firms — one British, the other French — were invited by a real estate subsidiary of Chinese steel conglomerate Jiangsu Shagang Group to submit plans for a twin-tower, mixed-use project in Zhangjiagang, a city of about 1.5 million people 60 miles west of Shanghai.

RTKL won with a design for two high-rise towers connected by an elliptical atrium. A 64-story hotel and extended-stay apartment building, to be operated by Marriott, will be the tallest structure in the city, which prides itself on its green, open spaces.

The atrium, a three-level shopping, dining and entertainment center, was designed as a community gathering spot and will connect with a 42-story office tower.

Developers also plan eventually to build a dense mix of 16 buildings for residential and retail use, though an architect has not yet been chosen for that project.

The development is representative of the many projects — often with office, shopping, hotel and multifamily living space — that are sprouting in cities of all sizes across China to satisfy still-growing demand, said Keith Campbell, vice president of RTKL. Municipal officials hope the project will help create a new commercial hub and lure visitors to Zhangjiagang, he said.

RTKL, designer of the Hilton Baltimore Convention Center hotel and Arundel Mills mall — as well as the first enclosed shopping mall on the East Coast, Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie, built in the mid-1950s — has been expanding in China.

The global architectural firm, which opened a Shanghai branch in 2003, opened an office in Beijing last year and is now designing multiple mixed-use projects in the country.

Chicago-based Campbell, who is leading the design team for Zhangjiagang Twin Towers, spoke with The Baltimore Sun last week about the project and opportunities in China.

How does this project compare to others under way in China?

It's a good-sized project in China, at 2.5 million square feet. Hardly any [projects under way] in the U.S. are that large, but in China there are many.

How would you characterize the commercial real estate market in China?

The commercial real estate market is still very strong and has been for a number of years. There is so much attention and resources being devoted to development by the government. It's remarkable in terms of growth. Lots of economists say China's rate of growth can't keep going at 8 percent to 10 percent a year, and we and others expect a slowdown. But still, given the population and the demand of that population, even if the growth rate slowed considerably it's still a strong market.

What kinds of opportunities has your firm seen in China?

The Shanghai office has been growing and doing well … and we recently opened an office in Beijing [after purchasing a firm there]. What we see mostly are mixed-use projects. It's rare to see a single office building or a single shopping center. There is a potential slowdown in the future, but so far we haven't seen it in our workload or demand for services. There is still lots of transition of population between rural and urban [areas], and there's still demand for housing. Recently we're seeing it in second- and third-tier cities.

This will be the largest new project in Zhangjiagang, although we did see … lots of residential construction, both high-end townhouses and villa construction, as well as high-rise residential.

What were you asked to do for this competition?

They were looking for a signature element on the skyline, but also looking for thoughtful master planning — how this [project] might relate to the existing city and future developments. [But] Chinese clients don't give you a lot of direction in what they're looking for in the architecture.

What was the firm's approach in designing the project?

We visited the site a couple of times early on and wanted to understand what urban forces were going on around this site. It helped us to shape the buildings and provide design solutions. Across the street is a new cultural center … and a small commercial district is on the other side of the street. This site and project is a municipal effort to move the central business district away from the old center to a new part of town. This will be the first new commercial hub for the new part of town.

How would you describe the end result?

It's a forward-looking, contemporary design. China is all about planning for the future. That's why they are devoting resources to infrastructure. They're designing for 50 years from now.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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