Bridging Swiss and Chinese cultures

Interview with architect Zhang Xi from EXH Design in Zurich | CH

A new logo for the world’s largest bank ICBC had to be found. For this project, ICBC wanted visibility for their brand, but Swiss regulations put a first end to this idea. Architect Zhang Xi from Swiss-Chinese architecture firm EXH Design together with Zumtobel found however a way to bridge both Swiss and Chinese cultures. In our interview she tells us how.

Visible from the street, the lighting solution for the new ICBC logo is a compromise between Chinese creativity and Swiss regulations, bridging both cultures. © Freunde von Freunden Productions

Tell me about yourself, how would you describe yourself as an architect?

I am a 38 year old female architect from China, born in Xi’an, the Terracota warrior city. Graduated from ETH, Zurich. Once I completed my studies I went to China to set up my own company, and now it’s been 10 years, that's me.

Would you say architecture is changing? If so, in which way?

I think Architecture is always changing, if you talk about Architecture or Design it is constantly changing, every project has a different kind of approach.

Would you say you have a signature touch when it comes to Architecture?

No I don’t, we try to avoid that. In November we will have our book launched where we describe our Philosophy and discuss Swiss quality and Chinese speed.

In Europe Architecture has a facade or volume to express itself but traditional Chinese architecture does not have a facade - it only has a high roof, representing hierarchy and the shelter of the whole building in combination with columns but a facade in itself doesn’t really exist. In Europe, however each building expresses themselves through the facade, different material, different shapes and so on but in China they use wood - so this cultural route completely defines the attitude towards Architecture. The Architecture is seen more as a space and shelter for the people and for its intended use, providing space in a less dominant way. Which is why in our Architecture it is rare to find signature designs or strong elements, we don’t like to over think or over design things.

Talk to me a little bit about EXH Design, the company you founded.


After my graduation, I went to Shanghai to set up EXH Design with our main objective being to build quality Architecture in China focusing not only on the design but emphasising quality in the construction phase resulting in quality driven Architecture. I don’t want to focus only on the architectural plans but I want to be a part of the behind the scenes, the building process, the construction phase, paying attention to the details which ultimately reflect on the outcome of the finalised product. Planning, communication and organisation is just as essential. With this philosophy, not only were we able to survive in China but capable of expanding our offices to Zurich, a city very driven to quality. We have 3 associates in China and 1 associate here, constantly further developing our Architectural platform. We take pride in working extremely close as a team, to ensure the best outcome for our projects with the most potential, supporting our client’s needs and guiding them until we have reached our goal. Constantly growing, learning and challenging ourselves.

Zhang Xi in her office at EXH Design in Zurich. © Freunde von Freunden Productions
A special lighting solution for ICBC © Freunde von Freunden Productions

How important is the dialogue between Architecture & Light for you as an Architect? How do you like to integrate Light into your projects? How would you describe Light? Or the importance of Light?

We are always inspired by the natural light. One of our main sources of inspiration is definitely nature. When you sit under the trees letting the sunlight filter through or feel the moonlight from a summer night, you feel beautiful and comfortable and it is due to the effect light has on us as human beings. Nature is natural but the designer is creating scenes inspired from nature, so we are constantly trying to replicate and integrate these inspirational moments within our projects. It is important to have an abstract approach and not only be focused on shape and form. Light for us is not a geographic dimension but rather something that represents time and atmosphere. A beautiful element in Architectural Design that acts as a tool to tell time. Now in regards to the ICBC Project in Zurich…

What was your definitive argument that made you choose Zumtobel as your lighting partner?


Zumtobel is orientated on lighting solutions, not on selling products which for me as an Architect was an integral part for this project and was helpful for the best outcome for my clients. The best light, is the light that best fits to a certain scenario, which means lighting solutions need to have the capability of adapting. Of course, we were also attracted to the beauty of the Zumtobel light - functional, minimal and sleek.

How was the support you received from Zumtobel working on the Light solutions for this Project?

The support was sensational, from calculations to authority submissions, Zumtobel helped in any and every way they could. I felt supported throughout the entire project.

We customised some special Lighting solutions for you for this Project, could you describe these and why they were important for ICBC? Were these Taylor made solutions to your standards, did they meet your expectations?

We designed a logo light product for ICBC in the centre of the ceiling in the board room which was a huge supportive argument as to why the clients chose us. Even from the street you can see the logo and the light through the window. For the boardroom it is a very emotional approach to representing the brand as well as a very functional light for meetings which was extremely convincing for the client and Zumtobel was a guaranteed partner which promised to customise and produce this piece and delivered, which held a lot of value and exceeded our expectations. We also used smaller versions of the logo light in certain entrances of the building.

The special lighting solution from Zumtobel at Zurich branch of the world’s largest bank, Industrial and Commerce Bank of China (ICBC) © Freunde von Freunden Productions

Any other kind of support you received from Zumtobel?

Of course, in professional lighting calculations Zumtobel is a specialist. The technical feedback we received was extremely important.

What are your impressions as an Architect regarding our LINETIK product? And our SLOTLIGHT slim?

Everybody loves the LINETIK. Whoever we bring through the space is immediately attracted to this free standing luminaire, you could say its the ‘star’ of the office. The rest of the lights are minimal and low key but the LINETIK is as elegant as it is functional. It is not only functional warm light, its efficient and aesthetically beautiful. One LINETIK is all we needed for the manager’s office, which speaks for the quality of light of this product. As for the SLOTLIGHT slim, it integrated beautifully within the space and really shows the effect good lighting can have in a room.

How did you choose which products would suit your vision for this project? Product Catalogue, website?

We had a rough idea and browsed the catalogues in search for products that would fit our project and integrated these at a very early stage which is crucial for a successful outcome.

Once the project was finalised, were your expectations with the lighting met? Absolutely my expectations were met and I got even more support than I thought possible. The result of a project can’t be something determined towards the end, it is all about communication, organisation and team work. The result stems from working closely together every day in order to achieve the client’s needs and our vision. I think the result symbolises the hard work between EXH and Zumtobel.

What was your overall experience collaborating with Zumtobel on this project?

We worked with Jürgen Häcker from Zumtobel was extremely supportive and is a lighting specialist. We also had several discussions with Isabel Zumtobel, who is a very inspiring with incredible ideas in regards to light - her input was very valuable.

Any recommendations for room for improvement for Zumtobel after this collaboration?

Right now, I can’t think of a single thing - which can only be a good thing. I am extremely satisfied with this collaboration.

Would you recommend Zumtobel to Architects?

Absolutely, of course.

If you had to describe Zumtobel in 3 words.. what would these words be?

Ok, 3 words… innovative, supportive and fast.

ICBC wanted visibility for their brand, but Swiss regulations meant the historic building’s exterior couldn’t be tampered with. So an illuminated logo, built bespoke by lighting partner Zumtobel, was installed above the boardroom table. © Freunde von Freunden Productions