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Inside GAC’s new Shanghai studio

27 September 2018 | by Maxine Morland

Chinese carmaker GAC has opened a new design studio in the heart of Shanghai. Situated in the Yue Jie Expo Park, the studio is in an emerging arts district of the city. The studio is within the concrete bones of an old shipbuilding factory. Following the opening of a studio in LA (GAC Advanced Design Los Angeles) last year, which is headed up by Pontus Fontaeous, the new Shanghai studio will be under the leadership of new hire David Hilton.

“Shanghai is not very far away from Guangzhou [geographically] but the whole ecosystem for automotive is quite different,” explains VP and Head of Design Fan Zhang, as he gave us exclusive early access to the studio in September. Guangzhou is an important centre for production – there are many JVs building cars there – but it is not as attractive for R&D. “In Shanghai there are many modelling studios and R&D centres, and the talent (international and Chinese) prefers to live in Shanghai,” he says. “If I want quality designers I either have to get them to come to Guangzhou, or I come here. Shanghai has built up an international design community, this is the main reason to come here.”

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Shanghai is the cool capital of China right now. The region of Shanghai the studio has been built in is an interesting choice as well. Close to the river, in the Yue Jie Expo Park inPuxi Area – it is a two-minute walk through a pedestrianised area to the  of (modern) Art; you can see the building’s striking chimney from the studio.

A new theatre is opening around the corner and it is directly next to a popular live music venue which hosts the JZ and Strawberry music festivals. There is a walkway by the river which is reminiscent of the South Bank in London. The area has a cool, hip, young vibe, with modern sculptures in the landscaped parks and walkways, and buildings which, while new, incorporate the architecture of their original use (shipbuilding) artistically to create an interesting new aesthetic.

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‘Chewing gum’ sculpture in the nearby park

The building which houses the GAC Advanced Design studio features striking concrete pillars from the original factory. Located close to the subway network, it has to work as an inspiring environment, but close enough to mean the staff don’t spend hours commuting every day.

“Putting this studio in the centre is a compromise for some people, but it is the right environment – it isn’t a touristy place, it gives the right impression,” says Zhang.

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Hefty concrete pillars from the studio’s history

The studio has digital modelling capabilities and there will be a scaled model making platform on-site but its main focus will be advanced design research and concept design studies.

“In general we would like to have different projects in different studios – I don’t want different studios competing for the same projects all the time – this has happened to me before in some advanced studios and it can be frustrating when you compete for the same projects and the same studio always wins,” says Zhang. They will eventually run some internal competitions but an ideal situation would be for each studio to have a speciality and do that 70% of the time. LA will work on the projects with a US influence and bring that American spirit, also bringing the Silicon Valley UX and UI influence to GAC. For Shanghai, it is located in a region with intense automotive growth. “We will generate a lot of information from this area, for design strategy, new areas for automotive, they will then be fed back to HQ.”

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GAC has nine people working in the Shanghai studio, and aims to have 15 designers working there full time, and “we have already got a sense of the quality and the way they work and the stimulation that brings to the design team globally for GAC,” Fan Zhang reveals.

According to Zhang the last three years have seen big changes at GAC R&D, with an increasing understanding of the importance of design. At the same time that confidence in the department is reflected in the investment in international studios. “Design is becoming more and more important,” says Zhang, “and we are driving forward the development of cars, we can define the products and the experience of our future customers.”

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“The GS4 and the GS8, these two products have set high standards and lead our customers’ taste and expectation higher, there has been no compromise. In future, we want to lead with a visible margin in the market – Chinese consumers will not tolerate us being mediocre or normal, we want stunning, first sight impact for customers,” he says.

GAC’s ambition is considerable, so will there be another global studio in Europe? “Not for now, we have been improving and expanding over the last few years and we have to let it settle and see the outcome, the deliverables, feel the meaning of those studios. But when there is another studio, it will be in Europe,” says Zhang.

GAC will be showing the new GS5 and the Enverge (Electric SUV) concept in Paris next week.

Take a look at the gallery of studio photographs (right), and hear a quick snippet of Fan Zhang discussing one of his projects below