Interview with Professor WU Siegfried Zhiqiang.
Professor WU Siegfried Zhiqiang is vice president of Tongji University and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and Germany’s National Academy of Science and Engineering. The German Design Council this year appointed him to the jury for the German Design Awards’ Architecture category, making him the first Chinese jury member in the category. In an interview with The Paper News – Art Review, he spoke about Bauhaus design, this year’s coronavirus epidemic and the role of spatial, urban and product design in this context.
The epidemic reminds us that humanity is still very fragile. In their search for prosperity, people forgot that we are not as strong as we think. Designers suddenly realised how important spatial design is. A crucial measure for containing the new coronavirus epidemic is associated with space. Space determines the infection time, space turns into time and using time to save lives is the logic of space, time and life.Prof. Dr. WU Siegfried Zhiqiang
This interview was held by Huang Song, news reporter at The Paper
(Source: The Paper News)
German design enjoys a high reputation around the world. In your opinion, how has it influenced Chinese design specifically?
German design has influenced Chinese design in many respects and exercised a considerable influence over China’s industrial production, modern aesthetics and design education during modernisation in particular. If you compare China’s industrialisation with Germany’s, it is clear that Germany is a step ahead of China in developing from a pre-industrial society to an industrial one.
If a comparison is made with the United Kingdom or France, however, it is also evident that industrialisation was somewhat delayed in Germany. China can benefit substantially from Germany’s experience of “catching up from behind”. The former has always had a traditional sense of “order”: the “order of Confucianism”, the “order of ruler and minister, father and son”, led to China being an agricultural society ahead of the rest of the world for 2,000 years. A rational order like this is also what made it possible for Germany to rise economically, following England and France. “Order” was the code of civilisation.
Germany’s ascent can be attributed primarily to its inherent “order gene”. Products from the country started out as superficial imitations of those from England and France. Only at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago did the Germans gain an idea of their shortcomings in an international comparison. At that point, Germany’s industry, technology, academia, politics and public began to discuss the path that needed to be taken, leading to a design revolution. German product design started to return to the essentials, concentrate on practical functions, eliminate unnecessary designs and return to minimal consumption; the simple replication of products transformed into striving for their essence, raw production turned into precision finishing and low quality was made into durable products.
This created a kind of industrial beauty, and a philosophical aesthetic arose from it. Industrialisation changed many things, including aesthetics, and most Chinese people have subconsciously changed too; as long as the product meets core needs – simplicity is beautiful.
The Bauhaus concept started in Germany between the two World Wars and also spread within China. Do you believe that this was in a way historically inevitable?
The influence of German design on China had already been noticeable prior to 1949. Hitler’s traditional aesthetics suppressed Bauhaus design, so a succession of Bauhaus artists scattered across the world, including one of the Bauhaus school’s most important representatives, Richard Paulick, assistant to Walter Gropius and a native of Germany. He moved to Shanghai to take up a position there as a professor of town planning at St John’s University. Bauhaus, a word which means “build house” in German yet sounds like “mysterious” in Chinese, was established shortly after World War I in 1919, when flattened and damaged houses had to be rebuilt and a simple and practical design concept found broad acceptance.
The widespread dissemination of modern architectural ideas began in Shanghai with the initiation of the architecture faculty at St John’s University in 1942. St John’s University was an Anglican university started by an American, and Professor Kuan-Lin Yang, dean of its School of Engineering and a famous civil engineer, invited Henry Huang to found the architecture faculty. The latter had studied at the AA School, England’s oldest independent school of architecture, and later followed Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to Harvard, where he earned his master’s degree. In Shanghai he encountered Richard Paulick. The two joined forces to preserve the Bauhaus tradition at St John’s University in Shanghai.
By the autumn of 1952 the faculty had ten lecturers and over 100 students, who continued their studies at the newly established Department of Architecture at Tongji University after St John’s University’s School of Engineering was transferred to there. In the past we saw architecture as the most extensive programme of studies as it included lighting, tables and chairs, materials, household objects, houses and so on. In Germany, I studied every window, staircase, material and decoration of the Bauhaus campus in Dessau and photographed almost every angle of it, including its restoration. The Wenyuan Building on the Tongji University campus, constructed in 1953 and mirroring the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, not only influenced me personally but also had an effect on Tongji University’s design education system.
Getting back to the influence of the Bauhaus on Chinese design, there are a few aspects that can be summarised. Firstly, the Bauhaus played a major role in the industrialisation of China. Simple and practical design reduced the excessive consumption of materials and shortened processing time, which would otherwise have led to a disadvantage among industrial competitors. Secondly, the Bauhaus helped reorient modern Chinese aesthetics; for the majority of Chinese people, it produced an aesthetic sensibility for simplicity. Thirdly, the Bauhaus directly influenced modern design education in China. Fourthly, the Bauhaus supported the development towards minimal consumption of natural materials. Today the “Bauhaus-ism” of the 21st century can be seen on an even larger scale that is closely connected to human life and ecology.
What do urban and architectural concepts have in common?
Urban design has a much larger scope than architectural design. Design stands on two feet: art on the left, and technology on the right. Those who are not familiar with art will only ever “build”, and the things they produce will be unsightly. Vice versa, when there is only art and no technology, the designer instead becomes a painter and can only create his or her own ideas. Design needs both and the designer must have a philosophy. When it comes to urban development, the priority is on serving people, whether the subject is a square, residential district or road. People are the primary users. What are the basic requirements that people have?
This is always something that must be considered by the designer; no matter whether it’s urban development, architectural design, interior design or industrial design, the same principles apply to all industrial products in the broadest sense. However, cities are communal products first and foremost, which means that designers must incorporate the needs of communities more than individual ones. For example, a road in Shanghai is different to a road in Hangzhou. Even in the same city, the streets in the tourist area will be different to the streets in the free-trade zone, so urban design should be based on the differences in the environment.
Secondly, urban design is closely connected to ecology. Trees, grass and flowers are design elements, and we must consider the survival of the environment, not just the people. Thirdly, urban design is an enduring product that grows and renews every day. It is never final. A designer is also a lifelong guardian of the new city that they design. Fourthly, the stakeholders change on an ongoing basis. A neighbourhood that was once designed for the elderly may in the near future potentially be used by children. The aesthetic differences and needs of individual generations are different and neighbourhoods must continually serve new purposes as a result.
This pandemic calls on designers to start designing “flexible spaces” and think more about what spaces need to be closed, open, communicative or interactive.
Can you discuss urban planning for epidemic prevention from a design perspective? How will epidemics and pandemics influence urban design in the future?
The pandemic is reminding us that a human is still a fragile being and, that in their search for prosperity, people forgot that we are not as strong as we think. Designers suddenly realised how important spatial design is. A very important measure for containing the coronavirus pandemic is social distancing, which means increasing the physical space between individuals using masks, personal protective equipment and other measures. Space is therefore very important.
Space determines the infection time, and the infection time determines how much equipment a country has available to treat patients. If a distance is not kept, the virus will quickly erupt and overwhelm the possibilities for treatment, costing many people their life. Space becomes time, and using time to save lives is the logic of space, time and life.
There are three research specialisations in relation to epidemic prevention itself. One of them is virology, the study of the actual virus, which is not the domain of spatial design. The second, however, is epidemiology, which is something to which we can contribute. Infection is closely connected to space. This pandemic calls on designers to start designing “flexible spaces” and think more about what spaces need to be closed, open, communicative or interactive. Parks, for instance, used to be designed to be accessible from any direction. Now they need to operate in “single-entrance mode” because we need to check body temperature. This is how spatial design leads to multidimensional thinking, and not just to a function of a communication.
A second important implication is the necessity of distinguishing between designs for different spaces. In February, for example, at the beginning of the pandemic, we conducted a study about marking out the infection sites for all cases in Shanghai. We found that the sites of infection were particularly associated with places where people moved of an evening, which led us to concentrate on strengthening prevention and control management in residential and nightlife areas. The correlation between a site and its infection rate was classified from strong to weak, in residential areas, nightlife areas, then traffic areas and only then work areas. Urban planners must improve the design of different spaces.
A second important implication is the necessity of distinguishing between designs for different spaces … residential areas, nightlife areas, then traffic areas and only then work areas.
The third matter consists of the “hidden plans” behind spatial design. Someone could think a design is for a park or green belt, like with my previous design for the new city of Dujiangyan in Sichuan province after the earthquake: the banks of the seven rivers are all green belts, however in actuality they were “protective belts” or “refuge spaces”. Nevertheless, many builders today are still only seeing the “visible planning”, ignoring the access roads, emergency zones and reserve spaces after their buildings are built. Some think these may be minor changes, but in reality they are life-saving evacuation routes. This is the “space for time, time for life” concept that I mentioned earlier. That is why I encourage all designers to make the “hidden planning” in design visible.
A city is fragile and the “hidden planning” is a form of protection. The larger the city and the more people there are, the more innovative ideas there will be and the more efficient it will be, and the more equal competitive conditions will be created. All of this is very important, but the more people that live in the city, the more fragile it becomes, and it can also swing towards the other extreme.
You mentioned a study about how infection sites could be uncovered using big data. How important a role does big data play in the planning of intelligent cities, in your opinion?
First and foremost, all urbanologists and urban planners have endeavoured to understand the patterns of urban growth ever since urban development began. We had looked for these precepts for a long time, but in the past – before there were large volumes of data – we could not carry out a quantitative analysis. We studied the growth and development process based only on our feelings. However, with the emergence of big data, we can identify precisely how cities grow, why some cities develop along rivers and why others develop along mountains or roads. We can now use big data to obtain an answer by understanding history. In a few decades, we will be able to build the cities of the future to be even more rational.
Big data and artificial intelligence may be able to assist elderly and disabled people in the future and change city design and planning.
Secondly, big data plays a key role in improving the timeliness of data for city management. We tended to update data once a year in the past. Now we can update it once an hour. This precise hourly analysis helps us rate the state of an epidemic so that we can respond accordingly. This is massive progress compared to the former, yearly updates and a major contribution provided by big data.
If we assume that a city must be evacuated or an earthquake happens, how many lives can be saved if relevant information is shared over the Internet eight seconds beforehand? By using artificial intelligence, the vulnerable and isolated elderly people in cities will be able to be helped in the future and I think that personalised care using artificial intelligence will be very important for local authorities. In China especially there are many young people moving to larger cities for work and the empty-nester phenomenon is very widespread. Artificial intelligence can gauge the temperature and physical condition of the elderly and identify falls and other accidents.
Big data and artificial intelligence may be able to assist elderly and disabled people in the future and change city design and planning. Big data and AI also of course raise questions about personal privacy. More regulation is needed on this.
If we assume that a city must be evacuated or an earthquake happens, how many lives can be saved if relevant information is shared over the Internet eight seconds beforehand?
When a city is being renewed, how do you find a balance between “tearing down the old” and “building the new”?
Some believe that nothing at all should be changed on historical objects, while others say that anything old should be torn down. Neither of these extremes comprehend city life. The city itself is a living organism and life must move forwards. On one hand, a city must preserve its genetics; if it does not maintain them, it becomes a different kind of organism. On the other hand, the city – like a living organism – has a kind of metabolism. Designers should avoid both extremes and know which elements are contained in a city’s genes and which are not.
When designers plan their designs in accordance with the idea of urban forms of living, they appreciate the things that are most important and avoid the extremes as a result. Many current situations are caught in the extremes. There is a return to barbarity if a city’s genes are not used for orientation. However, it is also not desirable to preserve the past in its entirety. The needs of society and inhabitants continue to develop relentlessly.
The architecture of the Bund in Shanghai, for example, is part of the city’s indispensable genes. The Bund cannot be treated like any old shanty town building. If we understand that the city has a highly valuable life, we must also rethink the concept of “urban renewal”. It is wrong if it is only concerned with modifying a city’s appearance. The city comprises people, social scenes, activities, life, production and other elements; a simple “renewal” by itself is nowhere near sufficient. In general, we should view it from the perspective of life. “Better city, better life” is always the theme of urban development.
What role do you believe architecture plays in the branding of Chinese cities? There are many advertisements for cities on Chinese television. What function do architecture and urban planning have in city branding?
Why do German cities not have any advertisements about themselves on their two main television channels? And why are there so many in China? That is a very good question. The main reason why so many cities in China in particular advertise themselves is that the decision-making powers were transferred from the central government to the cities after the opening-up and reform policies (editor’s note: Deng Xiaoping’s reform policies after 1979). This was a very important part of the reform policy. The cities became the main element of management. Within this management, the city mayors took the role of a general manager. In Germany, it can be said that mayors are financed by taxpayers. Chinese cities, on the other hand, have a large stake in financial revenue themselves and they work with it in a very intelligent way.
For example, when I returned from Germany at the end of the 1990s, the city’s government had invested in the Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower in Shanghai. Each tourist had to pay CNY 120 (EUR 15) to gain access to the observation deck. The investment paid itself off in full in just nine months. That is how returns on investments are made at a very rapid speed in every city.
In Germany, it can be said that mayors are financed by taxpayers. Chinese cities, on the other hand, have a large stake in financial revenue themselves and they work with it in a very intelligent way.
I was very surprised when I returned from Germany back then. The Nanpu Bridge in Shanghai, for example, was a helix-shaped feeder bridge that had just been completed; the Shanghai Municipal Government sold the operating rights to a Hong Kong–based company. The next day, the money from it was invested into the North–South Elevated Road. A local government like this is extremely strong. As a result, the city has two sources of income: first, it has its own investments; second, it has the city’s private businesses.
German cities only have private companies, and the cities themselves do not run businesses. In Chinese cities, things are different. If cities do not advertise themselves, how are they to pay off their investments? That is why every city in China has a general manager that goes by the name of mayor. A level of competition arose between Chinese cities during the time that they developed, similar to the competition between different companies.
Accordingly, it is understandable why cities in China advertise themselves so heavily and why so many private businesses in Germany advertise themselves. When companies compete with each other, they do not only put out lots of advertisements. They also try to make their products into something exceptional that cannot be copied by others. In a city context, that means many Chinese cities house buildings that no other city has, whether in terms of size, shape, height, ecology, history, culture or other aspects. They want to be unique. For this reason, Chinese cities frequently carry out projects that have never been done before. The competition not only involves neighbouring or similar cities, but also extends to periods in office.
In a city context, that means many Chinese cities house buildings that no other city has, whether in terms of size, shape, height, ecology, history, culture or other aspects. They want to be unique.
One mayor might govern for three years and complete a number of projects during this time. If the next mayor does not bring to fruition a project that overshadows their predecessor, everyone will say that this general manager was not good for anything. They must think like businessmen and then they will have everything under control. This also makes it clear why Chinese cities develop so quickly. Likewise, in Germany, you see that companies that are slow to grow are eliminated while the rapidly growing ones survive – the logic is the same.
Of course that does not mean that the Chinese cities’ model can be copied. There are, however, people who learned how to run a city. Richard M. Daley, for instance, was Mayor of Chicago and learned this perfectly. His father, Richard J. Daley, was mayor for 21 years (1955–1976), while he himself governed for 22 years (1989–2011). We had a particularly good personal relationship. Above all, he appreciated the city as a business model; cities must do business. Two generations of this family allowed Chicago to rise – with urban return-on-investment management, iconic buildings, squares and sculptures; and relentlessly new things.
Whether this model is good or bad in practice depends on whether it is appropriate or not – whether “the shoe fits”. City means competition. The central government delegated decision-making powers to the cities; the cities’ mayors and leaders were young and had to show what they were capable of during their time in office. If they did not make anything happen, the partners would say they have no talent or ideas and let the city decay. It is just like if the managing director of a company ran that company for six years and did not develop a single new product in that time.
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Professor WU Siegfried Zhiqiang is not only vice president of Tongji University and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, he is also a member of the German National Academy of Science and Engineering, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, an expert in special state grants from the State Council, chief planner of the Shanghai World Expo Park 2010 and chief planner of the overall urban-development plan for Beijing’s CBD. He moved to Germany in 1988 for his studies and graduated with a doctorate degree in town and regional planning from the Technical University of Berlin. The German Design Council this year appointed him as a jury member for the “Architecture” category of the German Design Awards. He is the first Chinese jury member in the German Design Awards’ “Architecture” category.