Dutchness at your service

The task

The booming megacity of Shanghai had invited the young planners and five other architectural designers to envisage a future for Gaoqiao Town, an 800-year-old satellite of Shanghai which in five years’ time will have 100,000 inhabitants on an area of 5.6 square kilometres plus a low-density resort area of 3.6 square kilometres. Situated at the point where the Huangpu and Yangtze Rivers flow into the ocean, Gaoqiao Town has throughout history been an important transport node. The competition (August 2001) was a rare opportunity to explore new concepts in large-scale urban design with the prospect of realization. The young planners accordingly set out full of good intentions and uncompromising utopian beliefs.

Many of the satellite towns around the mother-city of Shanghai have been given themes. For example, Anting, where the Volkswagen works are located, was allocated a ‘German style’ and the winning development scheme (by Albert Speer and Partner) was a traditional German ‘fachwerkhause’. The officials identified Gaoqiao Town with a ‘Dutch style’. The competition brief expressed admiration for Amsterdam canal houses, tulips, windmills, traditional Dutch forms and aesthetics, but also for modern Dutch urban developments such as Vinex, Kop van Zuid and the eastern harbour areas in Amsterdam: ‘We want to put in major investment to transform the town with Dutch style and architecture, to formulate a visually Dutch town … We hope that you will fully invest your intelligence and creativity to propose a Dutch theme park or plaza’. The competitors were three Dutch firms, one Australian, one French and one Chinese. How would the non-Dutch go about designing a Dutch town? Perhaps their towns would turn out to be the most Dutch-looking of the lot.

Such an explicit request for ‘Dutchness’ could be the most embarrassing or most glorifying brief for a Dutch designer, depending on your viewpoint. It was almost too unnerving and uncomfortable a subject to touch on. The most blatant and superficial interpretation of Dutchness was the retro-Dutch style, but the application of such style was considered inappropriate; the Dutch suburbs cultivate a middle-class living culture of the worst kind: no daring and vulgar luxury, no elegant and intelligent lifestyle, only mediocrity and complacency. The young planners felt the urge to take a stand. At the very beginning of design sessions, architecture of the kind to be found in the Holland Village theme park in Nagasaki was definitely ruled out and the discussion of ‘Dutch style’ was soon modified into ‘Dutch way’. Too much resistance might result in a major loss of opportunity; on the other hand, the young planners were firmly committed to a no-bullshit and responsible attitude towards architecture and urbanism.

At present, the southern area of Gaoqiao Town is bounded by heavy industry and business zones. To ensure instant modernization, it was clear that the agricultural part of town would have to go: ‘Young, aspiring white collar workers will be the residents of Gaoqiao Town; farmers will be relocated to adjacent industrial zones as factory workers.’ In the name of modernization and reform, everything was glorified and justified. Contextually, the town was surrounded by many regional and national ambitions. The town itself was to become an ‘international economic, financial, trade and shipping centre’ and a ‘modernised town with leading industrial advantage, economic power, prominent characteristic and beautiful living environment’.

The young planners envisaged a future for the town as a polycentric metropolis of high density and intensity with top-quality living conditions; it was impossible to imagine that the client wanted suburbs. Their proposal embodied precise engineering of land and water and strategies with the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and so enable the town to compete and to complement its context.

The young planners did it the Dutch way; they questioned the question and posed an alternative one. In so doing, they doomed themselves to failure.

The winner

The competition was won by another Dutch office, Kuiper Compagnons, an Australian and a Chinese office. The winning schemes were based on relatively standard suburban planning principles. The Dutch winner had designed Kattenbroek, a well-known pre-Vinex suburb in Amersfoort. At an Asian-Pacific urbanization symposium in Berlin, the Dutch winner said that the city is aesthetic and static and does not lend itself to experiments.

The scheme was obviously the application of the Kattenbroek formula. The density of 55 houses/ha was comparable to that of Vinex developments, such as IJburg in Amsterdam. The winning layout was visually derived from familiar modernist paintings. The buildings referred to old and new Dutch houses. The winner also interpreted traditional Chinese architecture and applied it to canal houses. ‘The point of departure is the meeting of cultures, in our view a typical Dutch characteristic,’ said the winning project leader in a newspaper interview. The scheme was perhaps competent, realistic and suitable for instant realization; nevertheless, it was conventional and lacking in imagination.

Various parts of the town were given evocative and commemorative names – ‘Edge of Thousand Leaves’, ‘Lane of Reflection’, ‘Treasure Hill’, ‘Chinese Heart’, ‘City of Longings’, ‘City of Memory’, ‘Pyramid’ – reminiscent of the use of associative symbolism in Kattenbroek. When the poetically and romantically branded Dutch suburb was presented to the slogan culture of Communist China, the Dutch winner’s success was inevitable.

What do the Chinese want?

Recent architectural media had depicted Asian urbanization as a delirious and hilarious phenomenon; the reports seemed to encourage boldness and experimentation in design. However, such information proved to be somewhat misleading. The rapid urbanization asked for quick-fix propositions. Chinese clients turned out to prefer proven, even if sometimes boring, models which have already worked successfully elsewhere. Their approach was pragmatic with no room for abstract theorization, academic laboratory exercises or idealistic urban ideas which might risk failure in reality. Their brief was a strictly planned future with little flexibility for dealing with changing circumstances. As one jury member, Prof. Zheng, put it: ‘the approach of propositions should be instant, immediate, monumental, proved and to the question (not to question the question)’.


How would all three winners’ schemes be realized on the same site? ‘They (the Chinese client) will certainly realize part of our plan. Probably they’ll also use elements from the other prize-winning designs’, said the winning project leader. (this is quoted and translated from NRC Handelsblad, Monday 02 July 2001, page 11) These three schemes would be pasted together according to the Chinese client’s own will; the act of selection and montage would be the client’s (hopefully) creative input. This technique of montage suggests a better example: the history of Japanese modernization. The technique of selecting-copying–transforming-pasting was constantly and consciously applied by the Japanese in studying and utilizing western culture. The borrowing and sifting process escalated and accelerated the modernization process. In the space of fifty years, Japan achieved political, economic, technological, infrastructural and sociological transformation from a closed, agricultural, feudal society into a major world power.

In the making of a new Chinese city, where the past is too weak to compete with the fierce desire for a future – whatever that might be – the importation of excellence from other civilizations is the most efficient shortcut. A ‘Dutch Town’ could become an experimental ground where the quintessential Dutch technology, knowledge and methods are modified and transformed both operationally and stylistically into something Chinese. Different ‘Dutch town’ designers would compete under much more creative, critical and demanding criteria; the jury would assess the designs on the basis of a thorough understanding of Dutch civil engineering, urban and architectural culture. Such knowledge could preserve the jury from easy submission to foreign styles simply because of their freshness, and give it the intelligence to combine the best-quality designs. The knowledge, and consequent critical attitude, could further avoid unrealistic expectations of instant modernization and give more opportunities for pragmatic experimentation. The ‘Dutch’ brand could be creatively, strategically manipulated and represented to achieve maximum performance and effect. Exhaustive research and tireless experimentation are prerequisites to ensure the quality of the result.


The Chinese idea of ‘Dutch style’ never met up with the young planners’ idea (from the media) of the Chinese; when they proposed an optimistic vision for a vigorous metropolis charged with vitality and dynamism, their gesture was as much heroic as naive and stupid. According to one of the young planners: ‘Dutch architects and planners are particularly ‘Dutch’ when they design on non-Dutch sites. In Holland, most of them do what they are asked to do; they are loyal followers of prevailing policies’. What is real Dutchness? In a situation where ‘Dutch style’ was required as the character of the design, and Dutchness was the existential basis from with the young planners developed their positions and ideas, true Dutchness actually penalized them. Dutchness is the courage to explore; resistance to nonsense; an intelligent and critical attitude to questions, and thus to answers; and the willingness to invest immense effort to realize an ideal. In this foreign urban exercise, the young planners’ ideals became their weakness, and their very Dutchness led to their failure.

If at first you don’t succeed…

One month later, the Shanghai Urban Planning Administration Bureau launched another international competition, inviting nine firms from the West to come up with a development plan for Luchaogang New Town, a port-town covering 80 square kilometres which would have 100,000 inhabitants in 2005 and 300,000 inhabitants by 2020. Their glorious failure in the first Chinese urban exercise did not deter the young and fearless planners; the frustration had toughened and sharpened them. Armed with ideals and a positive attitude, they set off for the East once again. This time they changed their strategy and conducted the operation in Shanghai.

The brief

The brief of this competition was vaguer, but the scale, programme and scope were even bigger and more complex than the previous one. The brief was fully charged with Shanghai’s regional and China’s national ambitions.

According to the new overall development programme, ‘Shanghai is to be built as one of the world economic, financial, trade and navigation centres’. Luchaogang New Town would be the container terminal of Yangshan Deep-water Container Hub Port, located on several islands 32 kilometres from the mainland in the East China Sea. The port and its town would function as a single entity,’the sea gate of Shanghai’. ‘It will be the major port of East Asia and network with Hong Kong, Yokohama, Singapore and other port cities along the Pacific Rim’. The port and town would be ‘an international marine navigation centre of north-east Asia, co-ordinated with the Asian Pacific Air Navigation Centre of Pudong Airport’. This combined infrastructural centre would realize ‘a global material-flow function zone of high efficiency and elevate the functional development and image of Pudong to a new level’.

The port and town would be connected by the 35-kilometre-long Luyang Bridge, whose main function was to provide an artery for the transportation of containers and logistical supports such as water, energy and communications. Luchaogang New Town would be the base for the collection and distribution of containers. The port had to be able to handle 2.2 million, 15 million and 21 million containers by 2005, 2020 and 2100 respectively and on completion have a handling capacity of more than 30 million containers per year. The port town should ‘serve the whole country while catering for the world’, and ‘enhance the comprehensive competitiveness of Shanghai and its participation in the world economic circulation’.


With such a broad and vague brief, the young planners had to come up with a design that fulfilled the demands and had the flexibility to project forward into an unpredictable future – growth or non-growth. Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse of 1930 was the precedent for their planning concept. Ville Radieuse had a theoretically limitless and classless layout; zones were organized into linear, parallel bands allowing for independent expansion. The young planners doubled this layout and turned one of them 90 degrees. Two Villes Radieuses intersected to form one cruciform shape and four main quadrants. Different zones could grow indefinitely and independently of one another; their overlapping could lead to new combinations of programmes.

The Cruciform Shape accommodated a container distribution park with related programmes such as warehouses, manufacturing, administration and a dual waterfront (riverfront/seafront) city centre development. The container distribution park, a perfect logistical machine, connected directly to the highway and a 500-ton canal. Spaces reserved for future expansion included a tree nursery and large urban programmes such as a stadium and a concert hall. On the waterfront the administrative and business programme would be combined with hotels, housing, ferry terminal, shopping, culture and entertainment. Along the riverfront was the city centre; along the seafront, high-rise signature buildings and landmarks monumentalized the ‘gateway to Shanghai’.

The Four Quadrants were nuclear cities accommodating inhabitants and a complete urban life. The quadrants were based on the existing gridded agricultural landscape structure. The residential zones would be a patchwork of specific housing areas; each had a cocktail of density, typology, organization and public space.

The Interface Zone where container and urban programmes overlapped and interacted, joined the cruciform shape (port: container distribution) and quadrants (town: urban life) together. Unintended, unpredictable, multi-functional uses and vivid (sometimes bizarre) urban areas would spring up.

The young planners were confident that this concept would be able to deal with changing circumstances and to withstand the rigour of forces in the modernization process. Their design tried to encompass visions and imagination which could absorb and incorporate whatever might come.

Work in Shanghai

The young planners finalized the design concept in Rotterdam. Armed with sketches and production gear, they flew into Shanghai. The hot humid midsummer in the metropolis was exhilarating, and the pressure to produce and present the huge project in two weeks was overwhelming. They organized a temporary office with a team of five young local architects and three rendering wizards. The Chinese teammates were sincere and enthusiastic. At an average of 26 years old, they had already built 15-storey housing projects.

To start with, the communication was a problem. There was a linguistic as well as conceptual, historical, cultural, educational and psychological gap. The Chinese teammates’ local experience did not prepare them for conceptual thinking, nor did the enthusiasm lead to self-motivated work ethics. Communist ‘passive labour’ diminished their potential performance; there was a regrettably great discrepancy between what could be and what was. The southern Chinese summer was fierce; one overnight storm flooded the streets of Shanghai, the young planners half waded, half swam to get a taxi to work. The cars floated slowly through the swamped city like gondolas in Venice. The extremely hard work could only be compensated by rich and diverse evening meals. Chinese teammates were great ambassadors; they introduced the young Dutch planners to an exciting and liberating food experience. Thanks to such meals, team spirit began to flourish. Towards the deadline everyone took initiative and responsibility to accomplish the mission.

There is a local custom called guanxi: emulation through social relationship. Appointments for dinners, lunches and extra consultation sessions were made in order to meet politicians and experts who might be on the jury. The young planners’ local contact tried to convince them: ‘the more familiar they are with you, the more likely they are to choose your scheme’. The young planners’ experienced a moral conflict between their professional ethics and their desire to realize the project.

The crucified future

In the presentation, some 30 members of the ‘Committee of Experts’ – grey haired, middle-aged/old, rather overweight – judged nine entries in a closed hotel room. The young planners presented their scheme conceptually, leaving much time for questions, discussion and further clarification of ideas. The Committee was evidently looking for physical characteristics it could trust; being young, fit and not grey, the planners doubted whether they stood a chance. The questions asked indicated a basic misunderstanding of graphical language. Points and lines had to be literal; there was little room for conceptual expressions or implicit suggestions.

The result was announced the day after the presentation. There were three winners; the young planners got the fourth – the most pitiable place. There was no evaluation report after the announcement of the result; the reason for their failure remained a mystery. The contact person arranged a meeting with one of the jury members. The grey-haired expert remarked that ‘one of the winners had used the metaphor of a sunflower to explain their scheme. The middle part of the flower is a nice big lake; the petals of the flower is the city’. A sunflower! He added, ‘you are from Holland. Why didn’t you use a metaphor of something Dutch?’ Indeed, the young planners’ concept of the cruciform container distribution park and polycentric cities in the quadrants could have been represented by the metaphor of the windmill. The container terminal would be the large fans of the windmill. The fans are activated by climatic forces, and as people are running the city, the polycentric cities would be the wind. Then waterfront development, propelling the whole city, would be the engine of the windmill. When the young planner joked about the windmill metaphor, the grey-haired expert replied with joy, ‘yes, we would have liked that very much!’ It scarcely mattered what the design was, but what it symbolized. How a project was explained determined its success.

Why didn’t the young planners learn from their previous failure and Kuiper Compagnons’ success? Why were they unable to surrender to the selling technique of the metaphor?

They made no apology for the loss, although in fact they owed one to urbanism. Because of their obstinacy and resistance, they were unable to sell their work and so they missed out on the opportunity to realize a good design.

Shiuan-Wen Chu and Ruurd Gietema


Hyper-polder model. The rebuilding of Roombeek, Enschede