Having worked in architecture in China, I relished the opportunity to review John van de Water’s You Can’t Change China, China Changes You. The memoir was released earlier this year by Netherlands publisher OIO and covers van de Water’s professional experiences setting up a NEXT office in China in 2004 by linking up with a local firm.
The first half was enjoyable. I easily recalled having the exact same cultural quandaries he did. His coverage of certain Chinese idiosyncrasies are, at times, humorous. Consider this example:
‘[M]any of the ideas I tried to convey simply didn’t get across, due to the translations, but also due to the fact that our ideas didn’t seem to refer to anything in China. [M]y presentation of a concept, formulated in about ten sentences in English, was translated as “This is the entrance.”’
There’s the ubiquitous use of ‘maybe’, employees who create inculpable positions, and ‘questions that are too complex to be answered…and increasingly unwelcome.’ These are cultural aspects every foreigner who lives in China experiences. And they affect every element of life, especially at work where their efforts at saving face can break your career— unless, of course, you learn to use it to your benefit and mimic it, as van de Water did in some cases.
In the second half of this architecture in China memoir, however, he repeatedly attempts to prove his/NEXT’s success. That is, he seems to paint himself as a hero. The only spin better than his, however, is in a washing machine. Read between lines like ‘NEXT (is) a Western office that realizes international architecture for China’ to see van de Water inflating the verbiage. Creating a partnership with a Chinese firm does indicate success, but taking such credit for the metric square lots is denying how Western architects actually practice in China. Having worked with an architecture firm, covered architecture for Chinese, Hong Kongese, and US magazine, and befriending several international architects in China, I take umbrage at van de Water’s claims. That he won’t admit to merely being face for the Chinese, either because he doesn’t see it or because he can’t admit it– probably a combination of both– is just…well…it’s said. For a more realistic take on what it’s like for Western architects to work in/with Chinese firms read this post released earlier this week in the Architects Newspaper.
In the end, van de Water’s book has its niche as a starter guide for architects planning a China move (though economically speaking, it’s likely too late) and for those seeking insight into media hype over architecture in China. But, just as every kid learns the reality behind his superhero, readers should realize there is no Western architecture hero in China.
OIO Publishers. Though you can get this memoir of architecture in China through Amazon.
ISBN 978 90 6450 762 5