Author Q&A with John van de Water: You Can’t Change China, China Changes You

By Steve Kroeter June 21, 2012

John van de Water


Architect John van de Water: NEXT Architects (Amsterdam and Beijing)


John van de Water, a partner in the Dutch firm NEXT Architects, discusses what went into creating his book You Can’t Change China, China Changes You, an account of five years spent working as a Western architect in China (010 Publishers, February 2012).

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Designers & Books: You arrived in China in 2004 to see if you could get your firm, NEXT, established in the rapidly growing market for architectural services that existed there at that time. What made you and your partners initially come to the conclusion that there was an opportunity in China for NEXT?

John van de Water: Our first acquaintance with China was made in 1999, when we visited several Chinese cities as part of a research project on the changing appearance of world metropolises under the influence of globalization. In 2001, I presented the results of this project at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Tongji University in Shanghai. As a result of these presentations, NEXT was asked to work as part of a team on a competition for a stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We were not selected, but the experience had a big impact on us—the idea that without directly relevant experience, in China you could participate in these extraordinary competitions. This made us decide to try to set up a new office there. In 2004, almost as an experiment, I left for China with just a backpack and a laptop.

D&B: How soon after your arrival did you realize that your experiences were going to end up being substantially different than you had expected—and that they would lead to a book?

You Can’t China, China Changes You, 2012 (010 Publishers)

JvdW: The discrepancy between imagination and reality arose almost immediately. There turned out to be no such thing as carte blanche for a Western architect in China. With our (modernistic) educational background, conceptual approach, and rational and analytical methodology, we were simply not “equipped” enough for Chinese assignments: certainly not for the organization, scale, budget, and speed required; nor—on a more abstract level—for the different approach to quality and value.

While from my very first moments in China I had started registering my experiences and thoughts, only after five years did the idea for a book arise. This passage of time gave me the chance to reflect on all that was happening around me, as did my answers to the growing requests from the West to share my experiences.

D&B: Did you really arrive in China believing that you were going to change it?

JvdW: At a minimum it would be fair to say that we expected to have influence. We were overflowing with conceptual ideas and ambition as a result of having won several won international competitions in Europe, We were depicted as “Tomorrow’s Elite” at a bi-annual conference, and there were press notices in 2004 that said our “work and thinking was highly regarded.” So when we arrived in China, we were feeling somewhat confident.

D&B: What was your first experience that made it clear to you that you weren’t going to change China—that in fact the reverse would happen?

JvdW: There were a range of experiences, of different magnitudes and ways of learning. The most obvious probably had to do with diffuse communication. Our first proposal was rejected with: “Maybe difficult in China.” It takes a while before a Westerner understands that “maybe” in China can mean “maybe,” but at the same time it can actually mean “yes” or “no.” Developing an understanding for cultural context not only makes it possible to develop better proposals, but it also makes it possible to understand priorities and the thinking behind the priorities.

IBM China R&D head office (designed by NEXT Architects) project documentation photos, Beijing, 2007–2008

D&B: How would you explain what it is about China that makes it impervious to change from the outside?

JvdW: I believe it's a combination of over 5,000 years of cultural pride—China being one of the oldest surviving civilizations in world history—and a recent 100 years of unfortunate history, in which Western countries invaded, looted, and humiliated China.

D&B: In the preface to your book you say that China “changed me and my ideas on architecture for good.” What changed for you—and do you feel that the changes have made you a better architect? A better person? A better business partner?

JvdW: I abandoned the concept that we as Western architects somehow represent an objective “truth” toward ourselves, our clients, and our profession—and that this “truth” is universally applicable regardless of context and culture. Confronting this made me both a better architect and also a better business partner.

D&B: Do you think there are implications of your experience for the teaching of architecture in the West?

JvdW: The distinction between Western and Chinese design education can be found in the differences in approaches to design and design appreciation. The Western orientation originates “from the brain,” and it is hard and rigid. The Chinese approach is from ”the heart”; it is delicate and sensitive. These approaches don't necessarily exclude one or the other; on the contrary, I believe there's great potential in the overlap and combination. To exploit this, Western design education should allow for more intuitive, more subjective thinking. Chinese design education, on the other hand, should rely more on analytical argumentation. In our office we call this “cross-cultural design,” and we've starting developing it in an academic context in both China and Europe.

IBM China R&D head office building (designed by NEXT Architects) under construction, Beijing, 2007

D&B: In your chapter “What Does the Client Want” you say: “To the Western architect, originality was the highest idea. In China, at least for the time being, the ability to reproduce what had already achieved a perfect form in the past seemed no less of an idea.” What do you think accounted for this prevailing attitude when you first arrived in China? And do you think this different value structure still remains today?

JvdW: I believe there’s a persistent prejudice that Western designers are more original and Chinese designers are more artisanal. The prejudice already starts with the concept of “original.” The Chinese believe, “so many things have been invented in the last century, why not freely combine these?” I'm not so interested in the still remaining literal replicas of “original” historic Western buildings you can find throughout China. I'm much more interested in a shift taking place, to an increasing interpretation of “foreign” concepts and the development of these into something for contemporary China.

D&B: In the chapter “The Architect as Search Engine” you say that Chinese clients are very powerful “because they have the ability to balance a myriad of uncertainties.” Did you experience this in a way that made the client relationship dramatically different from what is typical with a Western client? And if you found it to be true of Chinese clients, was something similar also true of Chinese architects?

JvdW: There's a beautiful Chinese metaphor called “crossing the river by stepping stone.” A Chinese friend who did his Ph.D. in Europe once used it to compare the difference between Chinese and Western thinking. A Chinese person would cross a river by simply trying the stones. If the stones are too slippery, or if the water is too deep, then another place would be tested. A Westerner on the other hand would start to analyze the river first, before trying to cross. I feel very much that this is the way projects in China are developed, both by Chinese clients and Chinese architects.

As a starting point there’s a need for designs, called “concepts” in Chinese, but often regarded as final designs in the West. These have to be developed in very short time frames, often without clear briefs or constraints. And there will be significant change and uncertainties, as the projects develop. For a Western architect this is almost like working in reverse; producing designs at the very beginning of an often uncontrollable design process. Chinese architects on the other hand, seem fully capable of working under these conditions. The difference embodies the challenge for a Western architect in China: the development of robust designs that can navigate uncertainties and change without losing the initially envisioned architectural quality.

Renderings of buildings designed and under construction by NEXT Architects in the Chinese cities of (clockwise from upper left) Ningde, Beijing, Fujian, Ordos, Beijing, and Fuzhou

D&B: Did you find any overlap in the books that are esteemed by Western architects and the books that are esteemed by Chinese architects?

JvdW: One of the structural shortcomings of contemporary China is a lack of time. Everything seems to be, and needs to be “instant.” As such, there is hardly any time for reflection. Books in China seem as a result to be appreciated more on a pragmatic level. To quote various befriended Chinese architects: “No time to read, I just quick-scan the images” and “I only check what is useable.” There seems to be a shift though, given the increasing number of Chinese appreciations I received for the book. This very much surprised me, since the book almost completely lacks images and mainly consists of text.

D&B: The value of your book to architects who intend to practice in China is immediately obvious. What about to architects who will never visit China?

JvdW: You Can't Change China, China Changes You does not aim to be an architect’s manual. Rather, it provides insights into another world, and by doing so it sheds light on our own limitations, in the broadest sense of the word. Though it’s written by an architect, it is not solely about architecture. The central question, “How to exploit space outside your own (cultural) frame of reference?,” is arguably relevant for other professions, even outside the creative industries, even if there is no intention to visit China.

D&B: How different from your experience in China do you think it would be for a Chinese architect attempting to establish a practice in Amsterdam or New York?

JvdW: There’s a tendency that more and more architects are involved in projects outside their own countries of origin. All these architects, I believe, eventually realize that not “bending” toward the other culture is not an option. But bending too much isn’t an option either. Not taking this field of tension as a starting point for conceptual development is simply a missed opportunity. Regardless of where you originate as an architect or where your “theater of operations” is located, there is a way to add and be inclusive.

D&B: As you look at your book now, what would you say your favorite chapter is—what part of your experience in China did you most enjoy writing about?

JvdW: I enjoyed the cultural dialogues between Western and Chinese values that are noted throughout the book, not only with young and old colleagues and clients but also with drivers, waiters, neighbors, construction workers. Also I appreciated the discussions of more abstract concepts—like history.

Author John van der Water with Chinese colleagues

D&B: Given that there are many possibilities, what would you say the most important message of your book is—and what do you hope its impact will be?

JvdW: There are so many answers to this question. Just to pick one that is connected to a famous Chinese saying: “If the old doesn't go, the new can’t come.” If translated to the scale and perspective of the architect it would mean: if you hold onto old values too rigidly, you can’t always allow for development. And on a much larger scale: culture never has a unilateral meaning; the era of looking at China solely through Western glasses is definitely over.

D&B: Are you working on a new book?

JvdW: Yes. My first book is only the beginning of what I want to write about. There’s so much more to both explore and exploit in the field of “cross-cultural design.”

All images courtesy of 010 Publishers.

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