Insights+

Fortune Cookie

WATG’s Brad McNamee experienced the dramatic evolution of China before his very eyes.

Fortune cookie says “you will travel many times to China and will find success”. Brad McNamee may as well have pulled that little piece of paper out in early 2004 at the end of a delicious California style Chinese take away. Little did he realise at the time that in the ensuing years he would visit such a great country so many times, and along the way experience the dramatic evolution of China before his very eyes.

To work anywhere in another culture successfully and to be accepted takes incredible patience, and being a good listener and observer. Great qualities in any architect. Everyone has tried to get on board the China express to success, but it’s the pioneers who stick it out and follow the protocol that win out in the end. As Brad says “Travel helps you understand yourself better.”

It was a piece of competition work that brought Brad to China in 2004 following an introduction from a long term client of WATG’s, Ritz Carlton. Hunan is a province in southern China and interestingly the early home of Communist leader Mao Zedong. Initial designs were as Brad explains “Designed something more rooted in the Asian culture and specifically China, borrowing from the long history of Chinese architectural examples”

“Travel helps you understand yourself better.”

Faced with a panel of 40 or 50 experts and the Chairman, the WATG team sat through much criticism and learned in the process that the esteemed panel had envisioned something more Mediterranean. For a long time Brad tells us that the team were surprised by the reactions to the design work and had initially thought that there was no way they would be selected. The culture was such that the Chairman will listen to everyone’s comments first before making his views known. Naturally it’s easier to critique than to heap praise, and so another cultural method of working is learned and understood by the team.

Clearly having a relationship and a reputational track record with Ritz Carlton helped seal the deal, and they could not have been more thrilled as this property turned out to be one of the most successful revenue generating projects for them in the world at that time. Multiple meetings in China gave the team an education in working in this country which was incredibly valuable. News travels fast so the trust built generated more work for WATG, and turned into working with many new clients in Asia.

It’s fascinating to listen Brad who has 29 years with WATG talk about China and the tidal wave of change. Now in China you see elaborate hotel rooms with high quality materials and finish. The guest’s expectation of 5 star is now seen through the lens of Chinese travellers who have seen and experienced more than their counterparts had 15 years ago. Brad says “They are scrutinising a little more, highly critical, see more things, and have a keener eye”.

Brad had to go through a lot of banquets, copious amounts of toasting with potent alcohol, and some unexceptional accommodations essentially pioneering the way over many years to make inroads to China and as a result the rest of Asia. It was Brad’s gut instinct that it was worth the time and energy investing in picking up and travelling to a region that was initially ignored. When things began to turn WATG were already there, they work worldwide and not just in one place, it’s their international sense of understanding that makes them local. Brad’s sage advice is; “It’s about listening and taking into consideration our clients and their guest’s interests. They are paying us to design so they want the expertise but they also want us to be cognizant of the things important to them. It helps you embrace the world better”.

“It’s about listening and taking into consideration our clients and their guest’s interests.”

Brad has over the years developed a vision for the future of architectural work organically through experience. So it where does he predict next? Brad says “India is the next place for growth and expansion”. While things may move at a slower pace in India because of their cultural approach, it’s definitely on the WATG radar as is Africa and they’re always doing exceptional work in both of these locations. My fortune cookie says “WATG knows where to build next and understand how”. With Brad’s seven expired passports full to the brim with stamps, and three decades of seeing things build from nothing to something, I’m listening to him closely with my ears wide open.