German Architect Gerkan on Ai Weiwei Arrest 'There's a Big Difference Between East Germany and Today's China'
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Meinhard von Gerkan, the German architect who designed the world's biggest museum, the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square, responds to criticism of his prestige projects for the Beijing regime and speaks about the arrest of artist Ai Weiwei.
SPIEGEL: Mr. von Gerkan, two days after the opening of the first show at the National Museum, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested at the Beijing airport. What was your first thought?
Gerkan: Without knowing it, I was at the airport at the same time. Because our flight was overbooked, we had to fly back to Germany on Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle's plane. Westerwelle had been at the show's opening. We found out about Ai's arrest during the flight.
SPIEGEL: His arrest has shown, once again, that the Chinese government harasses dissidents. Because of incidents like this, Germans who work with Chinese officials have also come under fire. What is your response to such charges?
Gerkan: It's a charge that you are making, here and now. But it doesn't mean that others are making it.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps you could take a look at the German media -- publications like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper or the weekly magazine Stern?
Gerkan: Of course I was shocked by Ai's arrest. I have great respect for him as an artist, and I could imagine working with him. A friend of mine knows him well. Ai is deliberately provocative, probably because he thinks that he can achieve something with that approach.
SPIEGEL: How do you interpret the arrest?
Gerkan: Let's put it this way: The arrest is a heavy setback for everyone who believes in a gradual opening of the country through an exhibition like "The Art of the Enlightenment." During this visit to Beijing, we were under the impression that the Chinese were rather nervous. This must have something to do with the events in North Africa, particularly in Libya.
SPIEGEL: Courageous people are also protesting in China.
Gerkan: Instead of bringing calm to the situation, actions like Ai's arrest will only incite the protesters even further. I don't understand the Chinese in this regard.
SPIEGEL: Is it also evidence of the nervousness of Chinese officials that you, as the key architect, were not allowed to give a speech at the opening of the exhibition?
Gerkan: Our ambassador tried to convince the Chinese to let me say a few words, but they didn't want it. They didn't say why. I think it's because they preferred to talk themselves.
SPIEGEL: What would you have liked to say?
Gerkan: I would like to have pointed out that it was a German architecture firm that planned the building, because this isn't very well known in China.
SPIEGEL: Why do you build in China, a country with such a restrictive leadership?
Gerkan: China has changed rapidly since I began my first project 13 years ago, the German school in Beijing. There is no question that there are still many deplorable incidents, but one thing is clear: Never in Chinese history has there been this much freedom for the individual. Even though there are millions of poor farmers, it is remarkable that no one is starving in China.
SPIEGEL: There may have been progress in the last 100 years, but the situation has gotten worse recently. Regime critics are now tortured and imprisoned. Why do you cooperate with the people in charge?
Gerkan: That sounds so conspiratorial. To be honest, I often sit at a table with Chinese politicians and have no idea who is responsible for what. (Former German Chancellor) Willy Brandt said that change is possible through rapprochement, not through embargoes.
SPIEGEL: The former chancellor was referring to his eastern policy and to the relationship between the former Federal Republic of Germany and East Germany. If you had been offered the job of building the People's Parliament in East Germany 40 years ago, what would you have said?
Gerkan: I wouldn't have built it. Believe me, there is a big difference between East Germany and today's China. I experienced the East German system up close, because I studied in Berlin. What I experienced at the time -- the level of inhuman behavior -- doesn't exist in China by a long shot.
SPIEGEL: Ai Weiwei, the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and many others in similar positions would probably disagree.
Gerkan: There are 70 people working in our office in Beijing, many of them Chinese. We can discuss all sensitive issues.
SPIEGEL: But you know that some of your Chinese employees are required to report their conversations with the Germans to the intelligence service?
Gerkan: That's a preconception.
SPIEGEL: No, it's common knowledge.
Gerkan: You know, I experienced the Soviet regime. I was with my wife in Moscow and Riga, and we were constantly shadowed during our stay. When we went to a restaurant, a woman we didn't know would suddenly sit down at the same table. There is no comparison between all that and what I've seen in China over the last 10 years.
SPIEGEL: The National Museum, which you designed, is a showpiece building for the Chinese regime. It is on Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese government had its security forces massacre thousands of students in 1989. Were there any ideas during the planning phase to address the specific history of the square in the design?
Gerkan: Not at all.
SPIEGEL: The square, as a historically tainted setting, played no role in the design? Didn't you want to show a visual counterpoint?
Gerkan: No. The square played no role at all. That wasn't the assignment. We were asked to build a museum that would serve as a window into China's 5,000-year-old history, a building that houses a million pieces of art and can handle 20,000 visitors at the same time. The assignment was to expand a structure built in 1959 as carefully and respectfully as possible.
SPIEGEL: But the square is historically contaminated.
Gerkan: Based on that argument, one would have to conclude that no one should be allowed to build in Germany anymore, either. Germany as a whole is contaminated.
- Part 1: 'There's a Big Difference Between East Germany and Today's China'
- Part 2: 'Who Says that One Should not Be Allowed to Build There?'