KCAP builds “Dutch” in China

After failing in a few competitions in recent years, KCAP has now finally gained a foothold in China. The first projects, for façades and a community building in Beijing, were completed in the past year.

In 2001 KCAP was invited to take part in a competition to design a satellite town for Shanghai. The brief explicitly called for a 'Dutch' design. In the periodical Archis (issue 4, 2002), Shiuan-Wen Chu and Ruurd Gietema of KCAP enthusiastically explained how they lost the competition. Too much concept, too little symbolism, nothing recognisably 'Dutch' – that was the gist of it. The competition was won by another Dutch design office, Kuiper Compagnons, and by an Australian and Chinese firm. A second opportunity followed immediately, this time to design an even bigger satellite town. But this too was botched in style. A follow-up discussion revealed that the lack of symbolism was, once again, the main reason for failure.

You would think that the office might call it a day in China after these experiences. But resilience was obviously great. For since those first faltering steps, KCAP has now built up a portfolio of nine projects, two of which have been completed, and has established a strong presence in China. For the Dutch firm the first completed project was just as exceptional as designing an entire town in two weeks. A private developer wanted a 'Dutch' architecture firm to design all the façades in a 21-hectare residential area. The urban layout, landscape design and house plans had already been determined. The façade design consists of a 1.5-metre deep 'wallpaper zone' based on that quintessentially 'Dutch' element: brick. The zone is composed of a primary zone of brickwork in different colours and an intermediary zone with – depending on the type of house behind – sun lounges, balconies and terraces. The result is a complex of houses that are similar in outline yet different in their details. You could call it a combination of Chinese-Communist uniformity and Dutch-Western individualism.

The success of KCAP in assimilating Dutch 'symbolism' in Chinese design is also illustrated by the façades of the community building that it designed in the same neighbourhood. Described by KCAP as a 'weightless bunker', the 4500-square-metre building includes a swimming pool, restaurant and café, Internet cafe, sports hall, crèche, library and tennis courts. The red concrete façade features a relief of huge 'Dutch' daisies and tulips, 4 and 1.5 metres tall respectively – everyday motifs blown up to the scale of landmarks.

What's remarkable about these two designs – to judge from the photos – is their ordinary everyday Dutch appearance. Yet KCAP has somehow managed to transport Dutch architectural practice to China without resorting to any crude historical design language.

After these architectural finger exercises in 'Dutch' building in China, KCAP is now active on an urban scale. The office is currently working on the Riverside Forum, a multifunctional complex that includes commercial, sports and catering spaces. Riverside Forum forms part of a master plan that KCAP is preparing for a 68-hectare residential district in Beijing.