Netherlands Embassy and Consulates, China

Interview with architect John van de Water

Architect John van de Water first came to China in 1999. The rapid developments he noticed in the country sparked his curiosity, which made him settle down in China in 2004. The embassy interviewed him on the opportunities within creative industries in China and Sino-Dutch collaboration.

Since Van de Water first settled in China in 2004, he has experienced big changes. These changes are not so much in the way China designs, but more a transformation in the relationship between China and foreign creative minds. He mentions that when he first came to China, creative ideas were often copied and suddenly adjusted and it was difficult to include many agenda’s and perspectives in the design process: “It was hard to design something from the perspective of dialogue, but nowadays, it is possible to create something just as how it was designed initially.”

Not only working with his Chinese partner Jiang Xiaofei (蒋晓飞) helped the architect understand how to work better. A generation shift and increasing interest in foreign conceptual thinking also had a big impact and made the Chinese creative industry more accessible. “When I look at the field of architecture, many Chinese have studied abroad and realize that the way China currently builds does not suffice. The society is changing.”

John van de Water and his Chinese partner Jiang Xiaofei (蒋晓飞)

The Netherlands and China: what they can learn from each other

According to Van de Water, creativity in the Netherlands is stretched over a wide spectrum, not just within the government but also within the private sector. “Creativity can contribute to innovation and companies need creativity from their employers to get to an innovative stage." This is something inherent to being Dutch, he feels. But what the Netherlands only started trying recently is to connect creativity with commerce, to have a creative idea contribute to a more direct commercial result. China has a much stronger connection with the commerce. An idea is judged based on its commercial value rather than how it may contribute to creative innovation on the long term.

But there are more aspects where both countries can learn from each other, the architect feels. In the Netherlands, there is a paradox where architects are divided into two categories. On the one hand there are artists, who look at things from a creative point of view. On the other hand there are the architects who view things from a business perspective, creating very commercial or market-oriented designs.

These two very different perspectives come together in China, the architect believes: “Chinese architects are currently more business minded, but are shifting towards a combination of both art and business. They have a way of uniting a mindset we in the Netherlands might find contradicting. In China something is measured by result, not necessarily by one’s principles as a designer, which is much stronger in the Netherlands. Dutch and Chinese creativity can complement each other in combining the ability to think in abstract terms and the Chinese sense of broadness. Where China has been focusing more on expanding and transforming; in the Netherlands we’ve been trying to find ways of renewing or innovating Dutch pride and Chinese priorities."

Through the years, Van de Water has had to cope with many challenges. The architect’s biggest challenge doing business as a foreigner in China is keeping in mind Chinese people’s priorities: “The Netherlands doesn’t work with much hierarchy. Conversations are more based on an equal level and as a designer, you have a lot of input based on your priorities.” The challenge to give up his own priority as an architect and work from the concept of dialogue is what proved very rewarding. “To stop developing ideas from this non-hierarchical way of working in the Netherlands and to let go of my own priority was one of the hardest things to overcome. It’s challenging, intriguing and exactly the reason why I stayed and will stay in China.”

Van de Water believes it is not a matter of pushing through your own agenda, but to learn to understand what you, as an artist, can contribute. It is a matter of coming to terms with a different approach. If you can do that, the opportunities in China are endless: “In the Netherlands, perhaps the highlight of your career as an architect is creating an Opera House, but here in China we are currently building two Opera Houses already and another two are in the making. There are definitely more opportunities in China.”

The Netherlands equals innovation

According to Van de Water, diversity is appreciated in China. The Netherlands is seen as a small country with a great capacity to think outside the box, to create new designs. But at the same time, not many people know how to truly distinguish the Netherlands from other countries. “I think the Dutch image still has opportunities to grow. We should not compete with other countries, but find something we are sublime in. To show a big country what such a small country potentially can contribute.” When asked what that may be, the architect needed to think for a while, but came up with an answer that can only be described as inherent to Dutch culture: “I believe the essence of Dutch Design, lies in its conceptual and process driven approach to innovation.”