Across the river from where we live, the city of Bern is building a new flood prevention barrier - and has been for over a year.
It seems the work will go on forever.
The Chinese writer Yang Erche Namu lived in Geneva for seven years with her diplomat boyfriend. She wrote about her brief encounter with the Swiss builders who worked on her flat:
“When I look at the way they work, it gives me a headache. The building site is full of modern equipment and the workers are wearing specially designed uniforms and safety helmets. There are all kinds of safety measures in place. Every worker has a cup of coffee or a can of beer.
But the slowness of their work makes me cringe. Every time I go to the building site they are very friendly and full of smiles. But I can’t smile back. All that is in my mind is ‘Hurry up! Why are you so slow?’ At exactly 12 o’clock they quickly take off their work clothes, without a second’s delay they are off to their two-hour break.”
Since it’s not my own flat they are building it doesn’t give me a headache, but I have to agree that to the eyes of a Chinese, Swiss building work is indeed very, very, slow.
A few years ago, I took my Swiss in-laws to visit China. One night in Beijing, after we got out of the taxi near our hotel, we found ourselves standing in the middle of a steaming, bustling Chinese building site. A whole street, half a kilometre long, was being refurbished in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.
Everything had been dug up, the mud was ankle-deep, and quite a few buildings were already demolished. Dust hung in the air and the whole scene was dimly lit by one or two small floodlights. As far as the eye could see, the street and the flimsy bamboo scaffoldings were full of workers.
Everyone was going about their business. Apart from a small truck and a concrete mixer, the workers used only the most basic tools. Most of the work was actually done by hand. There was a humming, upbeat atmosphere.
Three days later we returned to the same street. Everything had been finished. There were no clues at all that this had been a building site until recently. Except maybe that the street looked almost a bit too smooth and clean for local standards.
All the torn down buildings had been rebuilt. Among these was a little Chinese pavilion with an intricate wooden roof, brightly painted with clouds, birds and landscapes. For all we knew it could have been built in the 17th Century. The Swiss visitors were standing in the street with their mouths wide open.
The Chinese approach to building work reminds me of the freehand brushwork in traditional Chinese painting. The important thing is to do it quickly, to get the general appearance right, to capture the spirit of things. Don’t get bogged down by detail.
Sometimes this kind of attitude can be taken too far. Like many other things ‘made in China’, buildings are sometimes just a look-a-like of the real thing. They do not stand the test of time.
Some huge high rise buildings are built in China and then never used, because they turn out to be unsafe. The Chinese can build a road in three days. But the quality they achieve means that many more ‘three days’ will be needed in the future to rebuild it again (and again).
The Swiss builders take the same attitude as a watchmaker. It may take them forever to build something. But it will also be well thought through and stand there forever.
Maybe what is needed is to meet somewhere in between, combining the virtues of the hard working, speed conscious Chinese with the attention to quality and safety of the Swiss.