A computer-generated image of Ziyuanyuan Building in Futian District designed by Valenti and his team.
Manfredi Valenti discusses design with one of his co-workers. Sun Yuchen
Opinions could be divided over the Chinese saying “It is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books.” But for Manfredi Valenti, a 41-year-old Italian architect who came to Shenzhen with his wife seven years ago, the first half of the sentence is 100 percent right, especially for an architect, as he says “To know different cultures and countries is very important for architects like me because that kind of experience broadens my horizon.”
Valenti, a design consultant for Huasen Architect’s Firm in Shenzhen, is working on two important projects which his firm tendered last year. One is a 200-meter-tall mixed-use building called Ziyuanyuan Building which, according to Valenti, will be the last tall building built in the southern part of Futian District when completed in two years.
As an expat who has been living in the district since he first came to Shenzhen, he always takes into account the spirit of Futian being the center of the city when designing. “The building is located in the center of Shenzhen which has the best night life and vitality. It is sparkling when the area is lighted up at night, so I chose something shining like glass and metal things to keep the young emotion here,” he said.
Another of Valenti’s projects is an office building for the Shenzhen Bay Checkpoint authority, which will start construction this year.
Besides the two, Valenti is also working on projects in other Chinese cities, including Zhuhai, Nanjing, Jinan and Jining.
His current sophistication and success as an architect can be attributed to his previous work experiences in different cities around the world, according to the architect.
Valenti’s round-the-world tour as an architect started in Mecanoo, one of the most famous studios in the Netherlands, where he worked for four years. According to Valenti, the studio brought him to the architecture world, inspired him and transmitted his passion and curiosity for architecture. To Valenti, Mecanoo is a “mentor” who taught him how to design spaces and buildings.
As an architect fresh out of university at that time, Valenti cherished the job because he got opportunities to visit other architecture firms, which was an “eye-opening” experience for him.
The greatest influence Mecanoo had on Valenti was in laying a foundation for his design philosophies. “Mecanoo has so many talented people who taught me to consider people’s needs when doing a project. Everything should be natural and simple in order to create a comfortable and relaxing space for clients,” the architect said.
At Mecanoo, he was trusted with every aspect of architecture, from urban planning to landscaping and interior design, which is “a dream for every architect because every skill of a project is connected and you have to be there from the beginning to the end,” Valenti said.
After Mecanoo, Valenti’s tour continued. He then went to London where he learned another important skill for an architect — how to deal with clients. “London is good at management and dealing with clients from all over the world including China, India and the Middle East. My working experience there taught me how to manage big teams and clients later in my career. It’s another step in my career,” Valenti said.
Although he is now a sophisticated architect, Valenti didn’t plan to be an architect from the beginning. Born into a family of mechanical engineers, his father expected him to step into the family shoes. However, Valenti didn’t like engineering. In his words, “Engineers are boring and strict; they just do every part of the job step-by-step.” But as a young kid, he liked drawing and designing stuff, so when his father told him, “do whatever you think is easier for you in the future,” he decided to try his luck in the architecture world by taking the national entrance examination for architecture schools. To his surprise, he ranked in the top 50 among more than 1,000 examinees, which opened the gate to architecture for him.
To some extent, Valenti didn’t mean to become an architect, architecture found him.
His work experience in the Middle East is a similar case. After working in London for two years, he was offered a better job at the real estate branch of Islamic International Bank in Qatar. “I didn’t choose the Middle East, the place chose me, fate chose me,” he said.
As soon as he got there, he was attracted to the uniqueness of the region. “The people and food are amazing. The spirit of their culture is different from what the media has portrayed.”
After a year in the Middle East, a friend of his asked whether he wanted to work in Shenzhen. Being a fan of Chinese culture, in addition to his wife wanting to spend their honeymoon in China, Valenti said “yes” without hesitation. “I fell in love with China when I arrived, it was love at first sight,” he said.
He got his first job in Shenzhen in 2010, but work at that time was not easy for him. “I didn’t know Shenzhen at all seven years ago. It was difficult at first because few people spoke English and there were no Westerners around.” So he went to Hong Kong, which he believed was closer to Western culture. He landed a job as a design consultant at P&T Group, a global design firm. However, later he found Hong Kong not to be a friendly city for him as an architect. “People there were so stressed. They worked in small spaces and there was too much competition,” he said, adding that “It was far from what I wanted. I need more space and harmony when I do the job.”
As a result, he came back to Shenzhen. This time he saw the city from a new perspective. “Shenzhen is a beautiful city and one of the most international cities in China. It has many new constructions going on. It’s green and vibrant. It’s the gate to the future,” he said.
Besides working as a design consultant for Huasen Architect’s Firm, he is also a business partner in Z.E.N Architecture, a studio founded by his wife. His projects include shopping malls, mixed-use spaces, office buildings as well as interior, urban and landscape designs.
When undertaking a project, he implements what the Dutch school of architecture taught him at Mecanoo — “be simple and natural to merge with the environment and culture.”
“If there are too many materials, it only shows that the architect doesn’t have a clear vision. You have to start simple and then play with the materials,” he said.
Take Shenzhen as an example, considering the hot and humid climate, Valenti says one has to think about energy maintenance, so he prefers natural ventilation, green materials and solar energy.
When it comes to design, Valenti believes that there is always something to learn from the past. “Don’t spend a lot of money on new technology, look in the past and see how the traditional buildings were built,” he says. He illustrated his point with an example of feng shui, a Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment.
“According to feng shui, the bed should not be put between the window and the door. There’s logic that if you do, the wind will come in and you may get sick,” he said.
In terms of his future plan, the architect said that he will work and live in China for a long time because “China is very stable. After I finish my design works, they can be built in a short time.” Apart from his full-time job, he will also work with his wife to further grow and expand Z.E.N (www.zenarchitecture.net), his family business.