Ai Weiwei and Jacques Herzog on China's architecture


"Architecture is a way to understand many things in life", said Jacques Herzog very early in the conversation. And so it was unavoidable that a panel discussion on "Chinese Architecture" wouldn't just touch on the structure of buildings, but on many other things as well.

The panel, co-hosted by Asia Society Switzerland, was one of three events held alongside the "Chinese Whispers" exhibition in Bern. In front of more than 700 guests - the event had to be livestreamed to additional rooms - Swiss architect Jacques Herzog discussed with renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, with whom he had collaborated on the now-famous "Bird's Nest", the Olympic stadium in Beijing. They were joined on stage by art collector Uli Sigg, who had originally introduced the two, and Swiss journalist Martin Meyer.

The panel noted that China has been for some time the world's most active field of construction. "It's almost like a war zone", Ai said. "Nothing like this has ever happened in human history. Everybody in China has been moved."

Yet despite the unprecedented building boom, there has so far been little discussion on what architecture should be in Chinese society, said Ai. Uli Sigg - who first moved to China in the seventies - noted that for a long time, there was little sense of design. "This was understandable - everything just had to function at low cost", he said. But there also had been calls for more "Chinese-ness" in architecture, often with questionable results.

Jacques Herzog made the point that foreign architects were also partly to blame for some of the weirder structures: "Many just built things in China they couldn't build in the West." He instead advocated a "normal" architecture, design with everyday use in mind, that honors traditional building styles while also being contemporary.