The Power of Surprise

John van de Water, one of the partners of architecture office NEXT, wrote a book about his adventures in China. Hans Teerds was so absorbed that he read You Can’t Change China, China Changes You in one sitting.

Rarely have I read such a nice book on architecture as You Can’t Change China, China Changes You. Nice is perhaps not quite the right word. It’s one of those words you should actually be suspicious of. Anybody who answers ‘nice’ to a question about something’s value doesn’t know or doesn’t want to say anything else. ‘Nice’ is fatal; it is too general and superficial. But here I really mean ‘nice’ in the true sense of the word: something that is enjoyable and entertaining, something that sticks in the mind and is relaxing. The book can be read easily on the beach or in the train – and you can’t say that too often about books on architecture, especially those with few pictures and lots of text. You Can’t Change China contains the right combination of adventure and anecdote, a facile pen and an intriguing theme. It grabs you right from the start and reads like a novel. Or, to be more precise, like an adventure story. The adventurer in question is John van de Water, one of the founders of the Amsterdam architecture office NEXT. The adventure consists of setting up NEXT Beijing. That sounds like a documentary, but it is not. Rather, it is a character study, more of a personal justification than a history of the office.

The motivation for this justification seems obvious. Building in China throws up questions. Do you contribute to the omnipotence of the Communist Party? Is it an illusion to think that you’re contributing to change, never mind improvement? Are you as an architect in China not partly responsible for the unprecedentedly rapid urbanisation, for which everything that stands in the way is cleared away overnight?

Van de Water’s urge to justify his presence is, however, of a more personal nature, and the big questions are only touched on in the margins. The crucial question of the book is: how do you operate as a Western architect in another culture? After a world tour for their study project into the changing metropolises, entitled ‘The Image of the Metropolis’, the founders of NEXT — John van de Water, Bart Reuser, Marijn Schenk and Michiel Schreinemachers — arrived at the conclusion that if they want to build it will have to be in China. Van de Water was dispatched to explore the possibilities. They joined forces with a local production office and learned the amazing ins and outs of the Chinese market. Van de Water quickly realised that he has to unlearn all the lessons learned in Delft. It is not the huge difference in commissions, scale, funding and time allotted for construction that drew him to this conclusion. Rather, it is the difference in approach to the profession. Delft stands for analytical and conceptual thinking. At the NEXT office in Amsterdam projects are always held up to the light for a critical examination. During workshops with all the parties involved, everybody is invited to respond, with the aim of improving architectural quality and achieving professional ‘innovation’.

It soon became apparent that such an approach was impossible in China. The client is scarcely in the picture, never mind the future occupant, local authorities or contractor. The client poses an unclear question: ‘I want a modern, splendid, grand, modern, European Modern, rich company-looking office building,’ and then expects a clear answer. Or more precisely: a number of answers. ‘The Chinese client likes to choose, not to judge,’ is Van de Water’s wise conclusion. The client poses his question not to one office, but to a number of offices, either simultaneously or one after the other. Sometimes the primary structure is already completed and architects can make proposals for the façade. Sometimes the façade is already under construction, while the detailing is still being changed. If there is a conversation, Van de Water is advised just to ask questions that can prompt a positive answer. And in the process, he has to unlearn analytical thinking in favour of associative thinking. A building that looks like a mouse – that’s fine, as long as the Chinese tradition (often coloured in as the intangible Feng Shui) sees something positive in it. Architectural quality? It isn’t just clients who’ve no notion of it, since colleagues hardly recognise it either. If that’s your aim — their response to Van de Water’s arguments is in line with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — then you probably have a good life. They have more fundamental things on their mind…. Within a few hours they can come up with proposals for skyscrapers, big malls or whole city districts, drawing inspiration freely from Chinese and international architectural traditions. After all, as one of his colleagues seriously pointed out, Chinese culture is more than five thousand years old and hence the oldest. So all ideas, old and new, originate in China and one can freely pick and choose from them. ‘Western architects need a lot of space to design,’ responds a colleague as he turns down a commission to build a replica of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam on the Chinese coast because there was no space for an ‘interpretation of the assignment’.

The great thing about Van de Water is that he writes it all without any arrogance or compassion. To be sure, he is and remains amazed. In the closing chapter he asserts that it is precisely his amazement that has kept him sharp in China. After their world tour, Carel Weeber offered the four NEXT founders a note of criticism. According to him, they were too amazed by what they saw. ‘Looking was not the same as seeing,’ writes Van de Water as a reflection on that note. ‘That’s why surprise was a great virtue; it enabled you to see more sharply.’ Through his amazement one always senses genuine curiosity. He enters into conversations all the time. What is the attitude to life of his new colleagues, his clients, his new neighbours? How do they view the political system? And how does that relate to their own Western or Delft convictions? And to their profession as architects? ‘You have a big opinion for such a young boy,’ responds his neighbour in a conversation about the differences between the West and China that touches on the unavoidable theme of democracy. China emerges from those conversations as a land of paradoxes, and one difficult to fathom. That should no longer be a surprise after the boom in books about China. But what Van de Water adds is the perspective from within — not simply out of curiosity as a journalist would record it, but as a conversation between Western and Chinese values on architecture, culture and society. This conversation, which Van de Water also conducts with himself, is apparent amidst all the adventures and anecdotes and makes it such an exciting book. As a reader, you are eager to find out how far he goes in his quest for fundamental integrity. And how far he is allowed to go by his partners at NEXT in Amsterdam?

Van de Water eventually ended the collaboration with Huanyang, the Chinese ‘production office’, and continued under the name NEXT-Beijing. He is convinced — and his partners in Amsterdam support him here — that he has enough experience and connections to enter the Chinese market on his own. He does observe that ‘China is changing him’. He recognised new opportunities for architectural quality and professional innovation in the specific Chinese approach, even though the Western values stand up throughout the book. You only wish that more architects were just as aware of their objectives and their principles — and you don’t have to go to another culture to become so aware. This longing for justification is to the credit of the architect: he does not build for the sake of building but to serve, and that compels him to reflect. Such an interpretation of the profession as a matter of serving does not signify a hollowing out of the profession in the sense of ‘you demand, we supply’. On the contrary, it becomes deeper as a result.