Managing Asia

Managing Asia

Famous architect: This is the hardest place to work

Renowned architect gives his take on Asia's building boom

Working in China requires "extraordinary persistence," according to world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie.

"Building in China is the most challenging," the 76-year-old told CNBC's "Managing Asia" as part of the "Asia Builders" special series. "Apart from the size, it is also complex because you need to satisfy a shifting set of regulations."

Safdie, the architect behind many famous buildings including the U.S. Institute of Peace Headquarters, India's Khalsa Heritage Memorial and Singapore's Marina Bay Sands, is currently working on a vast waterfront project at the confluence of the mainland's Yangtze and Jialing Rivers.

"[China's] permitting system, building codes and the planning reviews are not what we're used to… I think by the time we're done, it will probably be [another] 6 to 7 years," he said.

The Habitat '67 project in Montreal.
Arcaid | UIG | Getty Images

Asia's potential

The Israel-born architect gained recognition in his early 20s with his ground-breaking "Habitat 67" housing project. Throughout his illustrious 50-year career, Safdie has become known for works centered upon human needs.

"I believe the purpose of the building should inspire the design. Not just practical, it has to be inspiring... but I don't like people to say 'wow' because how long can you go 'wow?' 5 minutes? A good building lasts for 50 years, not 5 minutes," Safdie, who developed his career in Canada and the U.S., said.

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These days, Safdie can be found in Asia, where rapid growth fueled a construction boom in recent decades. "The intense growth won't be stopped," he said. "There is no question that our practice is going to have major part of the work in Asia, in particular China and Singapore."

But the massive scale and speed of urbanization could threaten the region's quality of life, he told CNBC: "Asia is going through very rapid growth [where] everybody is in a rush to build. When you're overbuilding, you need to be clever enough to make it still livable."

Marina Bay Sands is a multibillion dollar resort developed by Las Vegas Sands in Singapore and billed as the w
John S Lander | LightRocket | Getty Images

Asia's most livable city

One country stands out from the pack in Safdie's perspective: Singapore. Apart from the $5.7 billion Marina Bay Sands resort, which is one of the Southeast Asian city-state's most iconic tourist destinations, he is also tasked to construct a huge bio-dome in Changi Airport and a residential complex in Central Singapore.

The government's decision to award tenders based on the quality of architectural design, rather than bidding prices, underlie the view.

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"For Marina Bay Sands, prices of the land were fixed and developers were told to describe what their designs could achieve for the country. I can't think of any country, certainly not the U.S. where I live or Canada that will say no to the highest bidder," Safdie said.

"In Singapore, you do your fair share of overbuilding but there is a concern for the public realm," he added. "However in China, they still don't understand planning in terms of livability."

— Reported by Christine Tan, Written by See Kit Tang