An interview with Dennis Nikolaev

An interview with Dennis Nikolaev – an architect and founder of Dennis Design Studio in Hainan Unican Science and Technology Innovation Institute in China.

What does good design mean to you?

It is useful, brings value.

How design and architecture affects everyday life?

It is a very big question. It defines if space is bad or good.

So does design of spaces affect the society?

Urban design makes people connected to each other and to the necessary services. Makes their lives easier. Good architecture is doing the same thing but on a smaller scale. For example right now – we chose to sit and have this conversation in an atrium which has a natural light because it is pleasant. Good design makes people happier.

Would you say that design is crucial in people’s life?

It is for sure needful because if you feel at least a little happy every day, you are more productive. Let’s just say I have a nice view out of a big window in my bedroom. I wake up and I see a nice view. It puts you in a better mood. You know, people would survive without good design. It’s not crucial but for sure it helps.

How can architecture and design of space solve social problems in China?

We as architects affect the world by just doing our job well. You know, just like cassier in a shop – how can he effect world? Just by doing his work well, serving people well. And that is already a great benefit. Well architecture has significant more impact on the society because it is just a bigger scale. But the rule is the same – we don’t affect everybody in a country with one project. We make buildings for people to feel better, to help them make it all work. You can also say that we just improve quality of life. For a developer we design good business, so he can make more money with a good design and then he can invest in another great project. So this is how the change happens. We are not affecting a big policy, we’re just making a difference in one project at a time.

Is there any way that design can solve ecological issues and help to save the environment?

Yes, one project at a time. For example now we don’t have to turn on the light, sitting in a space where whole light is natural. Step by step.

Do you think those small project works like domino effect – will they induce development in sustainable design?
Well after many years of working in architecture I see the initial excitement of green design as upsided. I look at the impact we can possibly do and it is unfortunately not that big. So why do we still do this? Because it makes people feel better. Because when you’re using design that saves the energy, you’re actually adding some qualities to the building, that makes those who are using it feel good. You know, just like the sunlight here. Most people wouldn’t even notice if there is a light bulb here or not, but they just feel different, that is why they like it. Most people doesn’t focus on architecture – they can just tell if it feels good or not. So for me green architecture is not all about saving the planet, but also about improving people’s’ life. One by one. One project at a time.

Would you say that Chinese design is sustainable?

It is way more sustainable than for example american design, from where I come from. First of all most of the residences there are single family homes, you don’t live in high rises. Here you pack the population very densely, so they don’t waste as much land, right? And if you look at a high rises in the USA you don’t really have natural ventilation. In a very traditional Chinese housing, where people don’t even think about green architecture on purpose, but they focus on the economy instead, you get a natural ventilation. You open window on one side, window on other side of the building and the wind just blows through. In other countries you really have to specifically design things like this and it is more expensive to do so. The deeper you make the building, the cheaper it is to build, but here in China it is just a custom. It is just a culture of this country to have thin towers with natural ventilation.

And do you know where this habit came from?

It actually came from Chinese food. You see when Chinese food is being cooked, there is a lot of oil and grease and it is all cooked on a big fire. When it all goes up in the air, it sticks everywhere, so if you have an apartment in an european style, where kitchen is connected with the living room, it all would get destroyed and messed up real quick. So that is why Chinese kitchens are separated and they require natural ventilation, otherwise it is just a disaster. So from the ancient times up until now, they insist that the kitchen has the window. And the only way to provide it is to build thinner buildings. You see, living room obviously needs a window or even a balcony, bedroom needs a window, another bedroom needs a window. So at the end there is so much window requirements for floor plans that building just cannot be deep. Now, what they do in the USA is they just place the kitchen back in the depths of the building, behind the living room. Same thing about the toilet – no window. I am not talking about the single family residents, but about bigger housing. So the building can be deep there. Here in China, bathroom also needs a natural ventilation for exactly the same reasons. So this is why they build those nice thin towers that can just be naturally ventilated.

It is so simple and logical.

Yes, just like you probably noticed that the whole world is screaming about the green technology and how electric vehicles will save the planet. Well, when I came to China for the first time 11 years ago, in Beijing everyone where riding a scooter. Electric scooter is actually way more ecofriendly than an electric car, because electrical car uses way more energy. So quietly China is doing all of those green things and not bragging about it, while the whole world is blaming them for whatever reasons. Here it is just a lifestyle. So China is one of the greenest country in the world, at least for those two things that they do naturally.

Is architecture and spatial design different in China than in the west?

Well one of the reasons I established my company in China, is that Chinese clients don’t really have a long history of construction. They open their eyes and ears and they judge what is offered to them based on the project. Developers who I was working with back in the USA were significantly more conservative and way more bottom line driven. Like “it has to be as cheap as possible and it has to look like this and that” and that is it. When it comes to some more crazy ideas you would hear “nice, but no thank you”. Here in China it is more like “let’s make it more crazy”. [Laugh]

So Chinese people are more open minded?

Yes. When you offer them a project of a building that looks like a dragon fruit they will say “Ok, why not?”, whereas in US they would ask you to leave. And this is exactly why I stay here. Whatever idea you will offer them, they will at least consider.

Are Chinese clients and their needs any different from the western clients?

Doing business is quite different but architecture itself, not so much. They really like to show their power and wealth. One of the reasons I like working here, is that they like their building to be nice and presentable. They are still learning how to maintain them. Mantaincence is a big trouble here, but I’m sure it will change.

What kind of issues do you face as a designer in China?

Well most difficulties come from having a business in China, because it is very, very different. So the relationships between people makes a huge difference here, as what they don’t say to you is actually way more important than what they say. But an intelligent person who comes here, can learn all of it.

So do you feel more comfortable in those relations?

Actually yes, a bit more comfortable. You see, I am an American citizen but I was not born in the USA, I came there when I was 20 and I spend there about 10 years. Just after graduating, after living there for about 5 years, I felt really comfortable. I didn’t feel restricted in any way by culture or my ability to speak and communicate. Whereas after spending 11 years in China I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface. The language and communication are really difficult to grasp, at least for me at my age. But I’m doing ok, as you see. [Laugh]

Did you know Chinese when you first came here?

Just a few words. I actually took a Chinese course at the university but I’ve got a B minus. Well it really should be C minus! [Laugh] Then I got a tutor for two months and after that time I felt comfortable on a basic level. I could order food, talk to a taxi driver, find an address. So getting the basics takes two months, but getting past this surface is super difficult.

How would you describe style of Chinese architecture?

How is it different from western architecture? They really like to adapt interesting solutions from all over the world. Particularly they love European classics.

I’ve read that it is Chinese way of appreciation.
That is a good way to put it. They are gathering the world’s experience. When it comes to ancient and traditional Chinese architecture it also influences what is currently constructed,
but more as a surface. You can rather see it in details that add Chinese characters, without a deep meaning.

So nowadays, Chinese architecture isn’t connected to Chinese tradition and roots of architecture?
Not at all. Now whatever is build here is more of a global architecture than specifically Chinese.

Is there anything that surprises you in Chinese architecture and construction work?

Well Chinese construction and design industry is just one big surprise. So whoever comes here should keep their mind open and not even hope, to work the same way they used to back home. Observe and learn how they do it here. When you already understand it, then you can add your own experiences and solutions.

Do you work with Chinese architects?

How working with them looks like? I would say that differences between individual architects are greater than between architects in different nations. Of course they are different. For example a big shock for me when I started my job in Shanghai, was when my colleague while working on a project used the exact elevation from one building, a tower from another and he called it his own project. But it looked completely like two other buildings. I was like “What are you doing? Aren’t you going to be sued?” and he answered” No! It is just how we do it here”. So i guess it’s pretty obvious for them to copy really directly. You see, when we copy, we don’t really copy, we use other projects as an inspiration. We are looking at the principles of what we like and then we reapply them. Very often here they are just applying the surface.

The interview conducted by Maria Prusakowska on behalf of the