The cityscape of Nanchang, a city of 5 million people in interior China, is dotted with “30-story towers, all of which look the same,” says Jan Lorenc, founder of Lorenc + Yoo, a Roswell-based design and architectural firm.
But amid the bleak monotony of the high-rises sits something quite different: a mixed use complex that looks remarkably like the Swiss city of Lucerne.
“A lot of people live in these nondescript towers, and some have traveled to Europe and liked what they saw. Some developers decided to give these people something special — a feeling of belonging to a community that has shops with a personality and buildings that look different. It’s hard to feel part of a community in a 30-story tower,” Mr. Lorenc says.
HIs 10-person firm is part of an architectural and design coalition building a reproduction of the Swiss medieval city, complete with an ancient-looking church and a statue of William Tell. It’s an example of work that’s been available to the firm since it began exporting its services, working with some of the largest developers in China and on major projects in other countries either directly and through relationships with bigger American firms.
The newest project follows a few other Chinese mixed-use projects on which Lorenc + Yoo has put its stamp as the country’s newly wealthy class seeks to invest in more upscale, expressive dwellings.
“Living and working in our development and similar European-designed cities in China is a bit of an ego thing,” Mr. Lorenc said. “But it’s no different than living in a high-end apartment in Manhattan next to Central Park as opposed to a three-story walk-up. It’s ego on both sides — the residents and the developers. It’s all about living in a fabulously crafted building with a European ambiance.”
The Nanchang project is designed by Shanghai-based Greenland with SWA Group of Sausalito, Calif. Providing a Swiss experience from scratch is not as easy as one might think — and that’s why SWA Group brought in Lorenc + Yoo.
“You don’t want it to look trite, like a Hollywood stage; even Disney doesn’t do that. It wears thin,” Mr. Lorenc says.
So his firm’s job is to make this new medieval town look authentic. They recommended that the buildings be of different heights with looks that don’t scream 17th-century Lucerne. “Towns like Lucerne are hundreds of years old, and the buildings were built in different centuries. They were built in increments, and each has their its personalities. Our job was to make the new city more genuine.”
The project is the size of a small town with a couple hundred condo units as well as a sizable retail and office mix. The church is set to be a popular background for couples getting married.
When it got the deal for Oriental Luzern , the Polish-born Mr. Lorenc and his partner, Chung-Youl Yoo, visited Lucerne and observed how the different architecture, art, wells and signage all somehow blended together to create a vibrant, livable city. They created a notebook full of the city’s architecture, including pavings, lighting, clocktowers, colors, rooflines, steeples, flags and sculpture. They noticed the color blue seemed to flow throughout the city as well.
They brought those considerations to the China project. Just like the original, they recommended that various colors of blue were sprinkled throughout the city in its signs and architectural flourishes. To make the city more authentic, they recommended the Swiss spelling of the city, Luzern, instead of the American “Lucerne.”
In this project and others like Fish in the Garden and Vanke Opalus in China, Mr. Lorenc’s firm delivers the “narrative,” he says.
“Consistency is a visual experience and in China they let us do all these things, where in America they have specialists,” Mr. Lorenc said. “We can work on the lighting fixtures, patterns on the buildings, graphic design, architectural jewelry.”
Mr. Lorenc is hoping that his American clients see the depth and breadth of his firm’s work in China and will allow them opportunities to take a more comprehensive role in other projects. “Frank Lloyd Wright designed his own light fixtures,” he noted.
He said his firm’s talents are especially important in China where “they are in such a blasted hurry to get every project done in the fastest possible time that they may hire five architects.” That’s a recipe for disaster in design consistency, giving a hurried, “cut-and-paste” look, he says. Lorenc + Yoo “makes sure all the buildings and the feel are speaking the same language. We even redesigned the interior of the marketing center to give it a high-end experience,” he said, alluding to the showroom where clients see how a condo looks and feels and can pre-purchase before construction.
The project was slated to open in Oct. 1, which marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, but it missed the mark. The other “best day” to open a project is China’s Labor Day on May 1, and Mr. Lorenc thinks the developers are aiming for that holiday.
His firm’s business is international, with about one-third being in China, one-third in the Middle East and the rest mostly in the U.S. Ironically, although his partner is Korean, Mr. Lorenc says that Asian firms prefer to work with Americans.
“It only happens in Asia, but they are buying a Western firm and they want the face of that firm to be a Westerner,” he says. “Even in Korea.”