A couple of weeks ago, MovingCities sat down in Shanghai 上海 with Dutch architect John van de Water – NEXT ARCHITECTS China – to talk about his book “You can’t change China, China changes you” [010 publisher, 2012]. Highly recommended, the book is a a formidable page-turner telling the story of a five-year long architectural discovery in and of China. Change you can believe in. Change you can construct. A publication of interest for anyone in or related to the architecture profession. Read it! Interview after the break.
First of all, an obvious question. Why did you write the book?
John van de Water After being for almost 9 years in China, one of the things I missed the most about Holland was time for reflection. Another reason was to deconstruct this whole Chinese experience into something more digestible for myself, and so to discover some direction for what we are doing here, what we want to develop.
When did you start writing? From day one?
JvdW More or less. The book started as a collection of notes – it is also pretty chronological. I used to write down a lot but now I do it less and less. It is about re-organizing all these notes into a comprehensive story. I never sat down and wrote because I like to write but more because most of it was already there.
Let us touch upon a couple of issues related to architecture and your practice – NEXT Architects – in China. Throughout the years, and this is also one of the underlying statements of your book, it was an advantage that you did not have a portfolio before coming to China. It sounds like a nice catch phrase – we’ve built nothing so everything is possible – but there also must be a disadvantage in this approach, or not?
JvdW This idea of having no experience prior to coming to China worked for us as definitely as an advantage. One of the biggest mistakes western architects can make in China is to think that they are able or equipped with a certain kind of knowledge, method or way to approach projects. In essence this is not working. I would not say at all, but at least not to the degree as it can in Europe or western countries.
So we were not limited by our experience or obliged to work with a certain methodology. That was the easy part. The hard part was that you get confronted with many questions; are not equipped for the scale of the project, not equipped for the amount of time you have to develop a project; face a less dominant agenda for architecture and are not equipped with the low-ranking position you have as an architect in this building process. So there are a lot of questions you suddenly have to deal with. The confrontation with all these questions provided me the energy to keep searching, to try to get deeper and deeper, to try to develop more understanding. For me, that is the only way to make architecture for China.
One aspect that is quite prominent in the book as well is that you are a Dutch architect, trained in Delft. The book shows quite a contrast between what you’ve learned in university and the reality of working in another cultural and architectural context. My critique would be that you are very Dutch-focused: you almost blame your education for not preparing you to tackle what you find here. It is interesting, as you clearly point the downfall of an educational system or even a disconnection between what you learned in the 1990s in the Netherlands and what you find a decade later in reality, in China. Why did you focus on that contrast?
JvdW The main reason is that we are a Dutch office. We have an office in Amsterdam, now we have one in Beijing and we always have this dialogue going on between actual western projects and practice, and their relation to the Chinese projects and practice. This keeps our projects more western, sharp. We are confronted with some kind of mirror, with a western agenda, so we will not comply to much with Chinese clients. The second thing is that, as a student of architecture, I never got confronted with the notion that there is a limitation in my design capacity, because I learned some kind of modernistic technique in a semi-scientific way…
Maybe almost like a religion?
JvdW … that your answers are applicable everywhere in the world without context whatsoever. So there was a limitation to my knowledge and actually at the university no one talked about this. If you did not comply with this modernistic dogma, it was seen as a blasphemy.
You mean the idea that you can apply modernism in whatever context?
JvdW That is at least what they wanted me to believe.
But then it surprises me, as I read the process of you trying to understanding China, with its distinct architectural culture and relationships, that you initially struggled with a fear for tabula rasa. Is that not at odds?
JvdW Actually I do not think so. The main question is how to kill the modernist idea from the inside out. Today, there is tendency going on in Holland that assignments are more about transformation and not about creating new assignments. It is about participation as well – involving users in project and let them have some influence as well. Before this, the architect was flying above the whole situation, pointing the direction of progress. These wide visions about society and everything else came down.
Our belief that we were dominating, or at least able to radiate some kind of truth, is shrinking. But we have not come down enough I believe. We are not able to understand agendas from different cultural contexts. The reason for me to try to relate projects to their context is very simple: because without relating them to the Chinese context why am in China at all? I could have been in India, or stayed in the Netherlands. The actual notion that we put our feet in the soil of China, should make our project more interesting and specific for China.
This notion of China is very prominent in your title as well. Where does it come from and aren’t you fed up of talking about China? We are and recently refer more to China as ‘our China’ or a ‘certain China’ – indicating a limited understanding. Once you get fed up of this all-encompassing China-concept it can become interesting. You need to fine-tune it more so to understand it better.
JvdW First of all it is a shortcoming of western architects to think that we are equipped to provide solutions to questions. Chinese architects provide possibilities and western architects provide solutions. The second shortcoming is that we always want to change. When you design something you want to have influence on people, how they live, work and experience something. So we are always dominant in what we can or should do. If you really want to work with the idea that you want to contribute to a city, users, client or architecture in general – and that is a discovery – you should not find change within your architecture. But I found this change within myself, so instead of blaming people that did not understand my architecture, or change my architecture.
This is something that is so obvious but it took me a long time to discover and I discovered it in conversation with my retired neighbor [Mr. Qing]. I had a lot of dialogues with him about a myriad of different subjects – besides him in this book there are so many little masters, from drivers to cleaning people and professors. All these little dialogues were like learning moments. My neighbor pointed out very directly my shortcomings as a westerner and architect. I wanted to find change without changing myself. Hence the title is a personal mantra, for being able to accept any shortcoming.
Without giving away the clue of the book, it is also a discovery and rethinking of two basic design parameters that are related to the limits of architectural design in China. One deals with designing the façade and the other one with the form of a building: the way that buildings, even when foundations are there, can change of form, volume, height…. [In a 1980s Koolhaasian way of thinking this could be probably called programmatic instability]. But what you describe in the book goes beyond this as it also includes client instability, formal design instability… Tell us more about this discovery and how it informs your work?
JvdW Years ago I would also call this instability, but now I call this flexibility. We tend to think that we can make flexible buildings, but Chinese people are able to make much more flexible buildings than we are. They incorporate such capacity for change. We tend to make flexible buildings that are completely inflexible and where the design process is completely inflexible, as it is rational and linear. You cannot change one part within this process because then the whole process start becoming chaotic and irrational and the consistency is gone.
I believe it is a very prominent topic now in our daily practice, how to make design that is so strong that it can incorporate this kind of change without the actual design itself or the building – when it is executed – loosing its intrinsic architectural quality. What to do when clients keep changing their minds and elevations and materialization need to be changed? It is not rocket science when you figure out – as you can design with these parameters – but it is a completely different starting point than a western architect starts to design.
Here there are no constraints and western architects need constraint. Here you seldom know what the program is, have hardly any reference about the site constraints, square meters; so everything is possible – and nothing is possible for a western architect. You can find certain values in that. The shortsighted western judgment is then that you can only design in elevation, for an empty container of space. If you would only have any idea about the process of realizing a project in China than there is certainly some appreciation necessary if you can realize a building with architectonic quality.
Maybe from a western perspective, we can say appreciation or acceptance. But look around you, where is the resistance in terms of architectural quality?
JvdW It obviously depends on your criteria. The whole set of western criteria is different from the Chinese criteria, so we tend to make architecture almost like a cultural investment, allowing to experiment with materials and details, and here in China, especially when you go out of the big cities, it is much more about economic than architectonic development. If you better understand this different set of criteria, than you also value the architecture differently and better in China.
To conclude, you came to China without portfolio, but as human being you come with certain expectations. How did you adjust them and are you at this moment doing what you thought you would be doing?
JvdW Our only expectation was to find a beautiful small project, maybe a pavilion or small public building. The first time-frame we set for this was six-months, but we were not able to do such a project in six-months. There was a point in time, where we said ‘I am not going back’, because if I have this idea of a deadline I am not investing enough energy to make it possible here. This ambition to create a small and beautiful architectonic project is still there (laughs) and there have been many buildings in between. Every building in itself has a certain quality from its assignment, from the context where it is developed. But I still hope to have this space to make a small beautiful architectonic project. That is what every western architect wants to do.