China’s architects draw up plans for career change

Architecture underwent spectacular growth in the last decade followed by an easily-foreseen collapse after real-estate investment jobs for architects increased more than threefold.

Photo by Fan Jianlei

Photo by Fan Jianlei

By WANG Tingting


To those on the outside, ZHANG Yang appears to be precisely the kind of young man any Chinese parent would want as a son. A successful architect, Zhang makes good money, but when university students approach him for career advice, he tells them to look elsewhere.

Hours are inhumane. Clients are impossible to please. And you are subject to whatever cataclysm is currently overwhelming the construction and real estate industries. Many architects, including Zhang, have left the field.

Like there was no tomorrow

LIU Xiang says she hasn’t quit, but only because there are no better opportunities where she lives. Better opportunities must be very few and far between considering she claims not to have seen a paycheck for ten months. But given that she hasn’t done any actual work during the period, it’s hardly surprising.

In the past ten years, the architecture industry underwent spectacular inflation followed by an easily foreseen collapse. From 2012 to 2021, China’s real-estate investment doubled but the number of jobs for architects increased more than threefold. Even so, the ballooning workforce barely kept up with demand. Everyone interviewed for this article reported being on call 24/7 and “pulling all-nighters like there was no tomorrow, which for many, as it turned out, there wasn’t.

Nice work if you can get it

In 2022, real-estate investment nationwide decreased for the first time, and since the architects’ salaries and the number of jobs have proceeded steadily downward. A quarter of jobs have vanished. Those who manage to cling on have had their salaries cut by half. 

Compensation typically consists of a base salary and a much higher year-end bonus, which in the 2010s could easily exceed 200,000 yuan (US$28,000). “I heard many firms halved their bonuses last year,” Zhang said. Performance targets are high, but there is little work to do, as firms compete for diminishing projects.

The skill set of an architect is pretty limited and specialized. Developers, home builders, and almost everyone in the industry are laying off workers and architects often the first against the wall.

All the way down

The scene in universities is even more grim. Architecture departments around the country are grappling with declining enrollment. In the booming years, admission was exceedingly competitive. The gaokao score requirements for the "Old Eight" (top eight architecture departments) were so high that they collectively earned the nickname valedictorian schools. Since 2020, however, all but one of these institutions have significantly lowered their entry requirements. In Tongji and Harbin, both among the Old Eight, architecture has become one of the easiest majors to get in.

Less prestigious institutions are faring even worse. In Hunan Province, the gaokao score needed for admission into architecture majors has dropped from the highest to the third lowest, hovering just above music, art and fashion design. To attract students, the Dalian Institute of Technology cut its course from five years to four. A few schools that opened during the real estate boom have already shut down.

Developers on the brink

Students and graduates are helpless and confused. Wang Ran, a sophomore, says many of her peers will not pursue a career in building design.

“You have no chance unless you are extremely passionate, extremely talented, graduate from the Old Eight, and have a rich dad,” she said.

ZHANG Xue, who graduated from the Chinese Academy of Art this year, is applying for graduate school. She worked briefly at a state-owned construction firm but left after a few months. “The market is so bad. I’ll just wait it out,” she said.

LU Ming, who now teaches at a small architecture school in Sichuan after a career in the industry, says the mood on campus is gloomy. If they are still hiring, big developers or design firms only consider candidates from the Old Eight. His students can only find employment at small contractors.

As design firms and construction companies struggle the few projects that do receive the green light are under great time and budget pressure. Developers are constantly on the brink of panic in an uncertain market. Salary delays are the norm.

The future is bright, say the profs

The long-term, however, is being painted brighter. Students are told that there will be plenty of opportunities to build low-emission houses and smart cities - but will there be?

A teacher at Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology says architecture will be transformed in the age of artificial intelligence and renewable energy.

University professors tend to hold a more optimistic view of their industry than students – perhaps rooted in their wealth of knowledge, or more simply due to their secure, for now, positions.