The Chinese artist, architect and curator is a catalytic and eccentric figure. A key collaborator with Herzog & de Meuron in Beijing's Olympic stadium, he's also happy to design buildings without ever visiting them – even when they're down the road
Tell us about the name of your office, Fake Design.
It's a little complicated. Several years ago my accountant came to me and told me we had to register a company name for tax purposes. I made up a few names for fun – silly names like Bed Works, Shit Dick, Pussy Design and Fuck Design. The official in the department of taxation told me these words looked too foreign, but that Fuck would be acceptable because it can easily be written in Chinese. It happens that in Chinese "fuck" spells out as "fake", so our company name turned into Beijing Fake Culture Development. In the West fake means false, so it's a nice double meaning.
What is Fake Design's design philosophy?
Keep it simple.
What projects have you completed recently?
Right around the corner there is a newly completed building that says something about my character. Even though it's only 200m away from my studio I never visited the construction site, or almost. I'm not interested in what has been accomplished, work that has been built, neither my own nor that of others. I'm always looking for the next thing – it's like an addiction. Once a project is finished it's dead.
How long did it take you to design it?
Not a second. I designed it pretty much in one afternoon. I didn't think about it before that or after that.
You're saying you're not interested in the physical result of your work?
Exactly. It's like a murder – when it's over, I need a fresh body to kill. I'm not interested in dead bodies.
You're interested in the hunt.
I have a Swiss friend who's always inviting me to go hunting with him. He tells me about the excitement I'll feel when I pull the trigger. I tell him I don't know... you don't know until you do it, so I can't say yet.
What are you thinking about at the moment?
I'll be turning 50 soon, and I have done so many things in my life that now I want to do less. I want to rethink my life – maybe I should finish it wisely.
You wear many different hats. What differentiates your design work, your architecture and your art?
As an architect, I spend most of my time dealing with the problems of the people who are going to use the architecture, how I imagine it will be used and how it reflects the identity of the user. When it comes to art you have to create a problem. You have to think in terms of art history, about relations, about man's aesthetic or moral condition. It's different from architectural practice, but on the other hand I've always thought of architecture and art as different theories with a single narrative. What at one moment seems very important later becomes a blur.
What is your relationship to Beijing?
Recently I was thinking: I have absolutely nothing to do with this city except for its mental presence as capital city of China, a political centre, the symbol of the Communist regime. I have family and friends here, but apart from that this city has nothing to do with me.
How would your work change if you lived in the West instead of Beijing?
It's very hard to imagine. I think I would be much more abstract if I lived in the West. Problems would seem much more remote. The problems we face here are earthy, tangible. We're at a turning point in our history.
Are you referring to China's long-term or short-term history?
I'm talking about our long-term history, although the past 100 years have been the most extreme. We were a colonial society that became a Communist state and then a capitalist powerhouse. In a very short time we passed from agriculture to the information age. It's exciting.
Yours is one of the few generations to have experienced both these eras. Do you have regrets about the path China chose?
It's like a fork in the road: you take one path or the other, and each leads to very different results. But after you've made your choice, history tricks you. It leads you to think: "If I took the other path, everything would be totally different." But I don't agree. There is such a thing as fate. Which makes it very hard to guess what's going to happen next. Too much calculation makes life simple and meaningless, less colourful, less imaginary.
In terms of your practice, is that sense of unpredictability and uncertainty necessary to your work?
It's absolutely necessary to me. You always feel better if your work doesn't look like the result of a bad habit, a duplicate of what you've done before. You often see artists copying themselves – it's so boring and senseless and meaningless but it's a practice that is encouraged today.
Do you think of design in the same way?
Design is lucky because it faces a different set of constraints. In design, you have to solve a problem, and although the problem itself might be quite unpredictable, you get a temporary sense of satisfaction when you solve it. You feel a kind of momentary intelligence.
Was there a period in history when people were designing in that way consistently?
Yes, I think in ancient Greece or in the Shang dynasty in China the individual's behaviour was less dictated by daily necessities. It was more spiritual in terms of it relationship with God – no, perhaps not God but another supernatural power – and this resulted in a mode of design that addressed the permanent, universal human condition. Today "efficiency", "desire" and "comfort" are the key words. That's why when we see design we often don't see intelligence.
Why did that change?
Life has become easier – societies are much more productive. Everybody can have a relatively pleasant, stable life, so there is less emphasis on spiritual being or spiritual becoming.
Do you think this has to do with a change in the way we perceive time?
Yes, I think society's perception of all the most fundamental dimensions – time, space, distance, volume – has changed, as have personal relations as a consequence. Anything bad is good, anything cheap is expensive. It's really upside down, inside out and everything is changing.
Do you think art is an indulgent practice?
Yes, I think it's indulgent, and indulgence only brings self-destruction. Indulgence is unnatural. It makes you an unbalanced person.
Is it some kind of struggle with the desire for immortality?
Yes. I think any form of consciousness or unconsciousness is about that.
Good architects are very conscious of their mortality and want to survive by proxy through their work. It's ridiculous but it's true.
Do you think Asia will find its own form of modernity, a path distinct from Western modernity?
I guess what's so interesting about Asia at this point in history is that the time has come to answer that question. It will be interesting to see whether, because of globalisation, it unquestioningly follows the West and appropriates its position. Alternatively, it might find a new relationship to information, technology, urbanism and so on. We'll see.
This interview will be published in Instant Asia, to be released in April by Skira
Template sculpture for Documenta 12
Herzog & de Meuron's Beijing National
Stadium for the 2008 Olympics, in collaboration with Ai Weiwei
Courtyard 105, Beijing, 2007
Working Progress (Fountain of Light),
part of The Real Thing: Contemporary Art in China at Tate Liverpool, 2007