Swiss architecture from a Chinese perspective

Bingy Li was born in Shanghai in 1987. She has lived in Switzerland since 2009 and studied architecture in Shanghai and at ETH Zurich. An appreciation for craftsmanship, a passion for building culture and the exploration of the unknown are elements that characterise Bingyi’s work and life and, in combination with Chinese roots, lead to an equally exciting and efficient collaboration. Developing and planning architecture together with her is efficient, culturally valuable and exciting in terms of content at the same time.

What made you decide to come to Zurich? What do Shanghai and Zurich have in common from your point of view and what are the main differences between these two cities?

The reason for coming to Zurich was purely academic. Getting a Master’s degree at ETH is a relatively common route at Tongji University, where I did my Bachelor’s degree. German-speaking architects have a great influence on the introduction to the world of architecture, which is why I wanted to deepen this topic at its origin. In Shanghai I received the building blocks of knowledge that were put together at ETH Zurich to form a complete body of knowledge.
Shanghai has absolutely flat terrain, in contrast to Zurich, which is geographically very diverse. In urban planning in Shanghai, all locations are very homogeneous. Studies can already be started with the 2D plan. In Zurich, there are so many complicated terrains that a 3D analysis is a must.

What does architecture mean to you and what role does 3D printing play in it?

Architecture gives me a different perspective on the world. The first thing I realised in my studies was that everything was designed by hand – no matter how industrial something might look.
3D printing is the future, but there is still a lot to do. It is also about returning to the primal question of architecture: Content or form? If 3D printing becomes as cheap as printing on paper, then we should prefabricate all building elements with new printing processes. 3D printing in architecture would open up many areas of application, except for complicated geometry.

What role will building have in the future? What do you think will (have to) change?

Since industrialisation, the field of architecture has not changed. Building bodies were limited by physics and industry. Everything has to be based on material science, mechanical engineering and domestic suppliers. If there is no breakthrough in science, architects will only remix existing concepts. Everything is handmade and will remain handmade.

We talked a lot about the building, living and eating culture in China and Switzerland. Why do new rooms in China have a “resting phase” before moving in and what role do chilies play?

In China, we have some important rituals between the start of construction and completion. At the start of construction, for example, an offering must be made to the gods. Certain circumstances require certain festivities during the setting of the beams. But nowadays, with small buildings, everything is less formal. The resting period is necessary in Chinese culture because we believe that a new room contains pollutants that must first be aired out, as a variety of different materials come together in one room. Although these individually meet all pollutant limits, the combination exceeds this limit.
In historical China, physical objects were used against spiritual fear and insecurity. “5 metals, 5 grains, 5 different cords and 5 medicinal applications” were placed under all the gables in the Forbidden City. Chinese pepper, vermilion and sandalwood, as well as camphor tree and realgar, are often used to improve the indoor climate in buildings, as there is a belief that spirits, insects and snakes are kept away by the smells. In Chinese medicine, these odours are also associated with prosperity and fertility.

This month you and your family are moving into your new condominium. Latrace was appointed to accompany you in the planning, especially in the materialisation and colour design. As a professional architect, what made you decide to work with us and what effect did it have on the result?

The individual design according to our needs is outside my core competence as an architect. In addition, Dr. Ines Klemm already had a strong network of very talented craftsmen who were able to support me substantially with their expertise in my building project.
Furthermore, she had an in-depth understanding of the perception of the interplay of colours, materials and emotions. This analytical approach made the selection phase clearer and more focused for my husband and me.

What characteristics will living spaces have to have in the future and how mobile should they be? Would it be the same answer for Shanghai and Zurich or do you think that the people of these cultures have very different requirements at the core?

In every culture there is a ‘perfect’ living space. This living space is strongly linked to local habits and suppliers. For example, in China it is common to have a fully tiled shower, but a floor-level shower panel is seen as very luxurious, whereas in Switzerland the perception of value and expense is quite different, often the other way around.
Any discussion about living space ultimately ends with the price, in this sense the high cost of living is the greatest commonality between Shanghai and Zurich. Adapting to these circumstances shapes the design of housing in both cultures and cities. Therefore, a discussion about minimum living space is more interesting: In Shanghai, living rooms and dining rooms cannot be exposed to light, balconies can be used as room extensions to the room, but toilets must necessarily be on the façade. The kitchen must be a separate room. The family shrine is always placed between the bedroom and the kitchen. In Zurich, the living room and balcony play a greater role.

What do you love about and in Switzerland? Favourite places, people, regions, food, …

My family, orderliness, snow, boat and train trips, skiing… .