New retail and hotel development in Nanjing, China. Rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.
New retail and hotel development in Nanjing, China. Rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

(Listen to “Overland to China,” a podcast version of this article, here.)

San Antonio has a long history of being the home of influential architects. In the late 1800s James Riely Gordon designed 18 county courthouses throughout Texas. In the 20th century O’Neil Ford’s modernist influence extended well beyond the borders of the state. Some architects have even had a degree of international notoriety. Alfred Giles, for example, emigrated from England in the 1870s and designed buildings on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

San Antonio’s central location made moving throughout the region by train convenient in the late 19th and 20th centuries. But today communicating with and traveling to the other side of the world has become as easy as turning on a computer or making the short drive north of downtown to the San Antonio International Airport.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Photo courtesy Overland Partners.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Photo courtesy Overland Partners. Credit: Courtesy / Overland Partners

Founded in San Antonio in 1987, Overland Partners‘ early work was defined by modern but sensitive interpretations of Hill Country vernacular architecture. But that aesthetic was a studied response to the cultural and historic places where these early projects were located. The designs were actually the result of a process that would yield different results depending on where the project was located.

Over the next 30 years Overland continued to grow and began to do work further and further from their San Antonio home. As they did this they refined their process of working in unfamiliar places.

Penn State School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, State College, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy Overland Partners.
Penn State School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, State College, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy Overland Partners.

One of these unfamiliar places was China.

By the early 2000s China’s economy was developing rapidly as its cities swelled in population. Because of China’s Cultural Revolution, the workforce lacked a generation of senior architects with the creative skills necessary to conceptualize the type of large-scale urban projects the country now needed. This coupled with the cachet associated with employing American architects – who were themselves desperate for work after the 2008 financial crisis – meant that many firms in the United States started looking for work on the other side of the Pacific.

For American architects, China represented an exciting opportunity. They were often asked to do the early conceptual design work before turning over the project to state-owned “Local Design Institutes” to produce the technical drawings necessary for construction. Although this arrangement limited the American architect’s role in seeing a project through to completion, it allowed smaller firms to work on larger projects.

But the pace of development was rapid and American architects often simply imported western architectural solutions to distinctly eastern design problems. In many cases this is exactly what their Chinese clients wanted – they were looking to recreate the “glitz” of American tourist destinations such as New York or Las Vegas even if that type of development clashed with their existing historic fabric.

Overland started working in China in 2010 as the result of a friendship that had been forged decades earlier. Tim Blonkvist, one of Overland’s founding principals, recalls receiving a cryptic text in the middle of the night asking if he “Wanted to make footsteps across China.”

Blonkvist initially dismissed the text as a wrong number or a prank but soon realized it was from a former colleague of his who had returned to his native China to become a real estate developer. This friend had followed the work of Overland through the years and when he was asked to make a recommendation for an architect to help plan a new town, he suggested a firm in San Antonio that he believed had the talent to tackle the project.

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The idea of working overseas was new to Overland, but Blonkvsit’s friend acted as critical resource in helping Overland learn how to work in China. In addition to understanding how their new clients approached business, they also needed to understand how they inhabited and valued their built environment.

Whenever an Overland team member traveled to China, they always made a point to see as much of the region they were visiting as possible. What they found was that although it may be expedient to think of China as a homogeneous place, it is both large and diverse. Just as New York is culturally and geographically different from Los Angeles, so too is Shanghai radically different from Guangzhou.

They also discovered that as older towns were growing to accommodate the influx of rural Chinese, they often demolished vast swaths of their historic urban fabric to make way for new high-rise development. The resulting “new towns” often had little connection to the architecture they replaced.

This was something Overland actively sought to avoid. Fellow Overland Principal Jim Andrews spoke of working with their Chinese clients to understand what was truly good about an existing town and to reinforce those parts as they created new developments. “We talked about three phases – reflect, restore and then enhance.”

Rendering of Gaochun New Town Center, Gaochun, China. Image courtesy of Overland Partners.
Rendering of Gaochun New Town Center, Gaochun, China. Image courtesy of Overland Partners.

In doing so, Overland sought to preserve and integrate existing historic fabric into the developments they were being called on to create. This sensibility was no doubt influenced by their own experience in San Antonio where 18th century Spanish missions sit next to 20th century commercial development.

Even if Overland sought to avoid the direct import of American ideas to China, there have been times when a good idea does translate. This is how a town in southwest China developed a feature that many in San Antonio would find familiar: a river walk.

When Overland first visited Lijang they saw a community that, like San Antonio, was focused on a river. Streets of the old town were oriented with views toward the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – the source of their water. Their client – a successful developer from Guangzhou named Bing Liu – wanted to work with the mayor of Lijang to create a new town development that allowed for a more direct experience of the river. They had identified several examples of cities built on canals and wanted to create something similar in the redevelopment of their city.

Lijiang Old Town, Lijiang, China. Photo courtesy of Overland Partners.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looms large over Lijiang Old Town in Lijiang, China. Photo courtesy of Overland Partners.

Rather than merely copy an existing model from somewhere in the world, Overland sought to help their clients understand how the examples they were referencing were organized. It turns out that while Venice and Amsterdam are both cities defined by canals, the experience of those two cities are actually quite different. In Venice people traveling in gondolas or river taxis occupy the canals themselves while buildings define the edges of the waterway. In Amsterdam public streets occupy those roadways and so are occupied by automobile traffic.

Of course since Overland is from San Antonio, they had another precedent they could present to the client. The San Antonio River Walk represents a third approach where pedestrians occupy the edge of the river and automobile traffic exists on a separate, higher layer.

A bronze bust of River Walk architect Robert H.H. Hugman is proposed for the space between the pathway and staircase at the Commerce Street bridge. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The San Antonio River Walk and Commerce Street bridge. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

After visiting San Antonio, the clients decided that model was the one worth pursuing. That’s exactly what Overland did and although the plan they developed is distinctively Chinese, its scale and texture would be familiar to anyone who had spend time meandering San Antonio’s River Walk.

Rendering of Lijiang River Walk, Lijiang, China. Image courtesy of Overland Partners.
Rendering of Lijiang River Walk, Lijiang, China. Image courtesy of Overland Partners.

One of the things that working in China has given Overland is an understanding that they are not in the business of exporting a particular style or a product, Blonkvist said, instead what they bring to each place is a process that allows communities to build to “unlock their embedded potential.”

“We get to know them, know their culture, know what is important to them,” he said. “We are trying to be very sensitive and sympathetic in our approach which is an outgrowth of our process, which is based upon an inspired inquiry to listen and work together in a collaborative environment and then to do a project that has the power to be transformational.”

Overland’s ambitions are not limited to China. They currently have work in India, Saudi Arabia, Croatia and Mexico and are looking to do work in other parts of the world as well. Of course this makes business sense for Overland; during the Great Recession close to 40% of their revenue came from international projects. But the firm also sees their work outside of the United States as a calling, a way of bringing people closer together.

“That’s something that can be taken and shared and have a positive influence around the world,” he said.

San Antonio architects celebrate the approval of their master plan with their Chinese clients in Gaochun, China. Photo courtesy of Overland Partners.
San Antonio architects celebrate the approval of their master plan with their Chinese clients in Gaochun, China. Photo courtesy of Overland Partners.

*Top image: New retail and hotel development in Nanjing, China. Rendering courtesy of Overland Partners.

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Brantley Hightower

Brantley Hightower is an architect at HiWorks. He also teaches at San Antonio College and is the interim editor of Texas Architect magazine.