Architect and designer Genco Berk has been looking worldwide for "my kind of town." Now he has found it. But he warns that Shanghai is not for first-time expats but for those "with some life experience".
Art and creativity, for many people, are a discovered passion. But for one Austrian expat who grew up in Istanbul, it also seems to be genetic.
Having grown up in a bohemian family, splitting his childhood between Germany and Turkey, architect and designer Genco Berk followed in his family's footsteps.
His father is renowned Turkish abstract artist Abdurrahman Oztoprak, who also is a freelance architect; his mother, Ayten Oztoprak, is a painter.
His father urged him to go to medical school, so that he would have a well-paid profession and job security. It didn't take; he left after a semester and studied architecture and design in the United States. He settled in Austria for 14 years, and has traveled widely, looking for "my kind of town ... my kind of city."
He may have found it in Shanghai: He moved here three years ago.
Today Berk, 47, designs the interiors of high-end villas and other residences. He hopes to include the work of young Chinese designers in his new projects.
"I grew up in an artistic environment and that way of living and working influenced me deeply," says Berk, who was reared in Istanbul. "My parents, both artists, used to work from home. So I grew up in a house that was always dealing with creativity. I learned things one does not learn by studying."
When he was 10 years old, most of his friends were reading comic strips - he was reading international design magazines.
Berk switched quickly from medicine to architecture and design. As a professional architect, he worked in Vienna for 14 years. "I was restlessly looking for my kind of city," he says.
Despite success in Europe, he decided to move to Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada, only to find after a few months "that it wasn't really my kind of town."
Four years later, in 2004, he decided to try China. "I was still looking for my kind of city and living in many countries had raised the threshold, but on the other hand I also knew what I was looking for."
At the time, he says, "I had no expectations at all when I moved here. I think this is the best way, especially when you come to Shanghai. I have been to other developing countries and China is very different. It has achieved much more in shorter time."
Berk says his childhood in Istanbul helped him to adapt to China. "Istanbul prepared me for Shanghai without knowing it at the time. When you live in a Third World country, you learn to be more patient and accept things for what they are without making comparisons.
"I was used to things such as water shortages and electricity cuts and learned how to deal with them. This is not the same in Shanghai but through this previous experience I can appreciate just small things and understand how to accept different cultures' annoyances."
He works independently, mostly in interior design; most of his clients are expats.
"I do not do a nine-to-five day and weekends. I like to work anytime I want. I do not like group dynamics and I am lucky that I can live and work in my own way. This keeps me motivated."
Explaining communications in his job, he says: "It involves actual body language skills and trusting instincts. If you cannot do that, then you are in trouble. Since things are done in a very fast way, you need to know where and how much you want to compromise."
Berk's style is Asian-inspired: "I try to combine elements of Asia with my minimalist yet elegant style."
The design industry here is dynamic, he says. "What appeals is the desire to create something new every day. I am lucky because I am asked to create something new in each project."
However, this also comes with problems.
"Most clients are not yet mature enough to appreciate a good designer. They are comparing apples with peaches, and at the end they choose the cheaper one. At the end they bound for a headache and spend too much money for less quality."
However, he looks toward future projects and promoting talented local designers, such as mural and graphic artist Zhang Weiwei. He plans to include her works and those of others in his residential interior designs.
It is hard for local designers who have reached a certain level to advance, he concludes.
"This way it gives them a head start and allows me to enrich my designs," he says.
(Shanghai Daily November 14, 2007)