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Focus on China: Ai Weiwei's architecture

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Chee-Kit Lai, director of Mobile Studio, reflects on the conviction and purity of Ai Weiwei’s architecture

At the recent talk entitled ‘Ai Weiwei and Architecture’, Kate Goodwin, architecture curator at The Royal Academy of Arts brought together curator Philip Tinari and architects Daniel Rosbottom and Simon Hartmann to discuss Ai Weiwei’s lesser-known architectural practice at Burlington House.

Four individual portraits of Ai Weiwei arranged in a row from left to right on a slide on the screen. The first image of Weiwei depicts him holding a brick captioned ‘Architect’; the second has him showing a brick captioned ‘Curator’; the third has him throwing a brick captioned ‘Critic’; and the final picture has him placing a brick on his head captioned ‘Artist’. For me, this single presentation slide epitomised Weiwei’s self-reflexive practice, perhaps to attempt to sum up the man himself. 

The talk touched upon all four of the above roles within Ai Weiwei’s practice, in particular, as an architect. Many of us are probably familiar with Ai Weiwei’s more published architectural work, notably the Serpentine Pavilion 2012 and the Beijing National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest), both in collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron. Mind, we shouldn’t forget that he publically disassociated himself from the latter just before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

It was an interesting platform to bring together three different perspectives to discuss Ai Weiwei’s architectural work and to shed more light on the man himself. Simon Hartmann offered a rare insight into working with Ai Weiwei by means of a client-architect relationship. His presentation was full of anecdotes laced with his Swiss sense of humour. Daniel Rosbottom contributed an essay to the main show catalogue and gave an account of Ai Weiwei’s work as a critic from an architectural point of view. Philip Tinari, a curator in Contemporary Chinese Art, also worked with Ai Weiwei. He discussed the boundaries of Ai Weiwei’s work between art and architecture. During the Q&A session Kate Goodwin returned to a larger than life portrait of Ai Weiwei on the screen looming over the panel. Yet despite all three’s familiarity with the man himself, there remained a sense of mystery surrounding the way WeiWei operates.

Through the early architectural projects of Ai Weiwei one can see that he has an acute sense of space, form and proportion. His hand as an architect was explored in the presentation and in particular the control he asserts over the architecture of his buildings. Allegedly he does not attend site visits, he simply lays setting-out constraints at the outset and embraces the accidental construction outcomes. It is hard to reconcile such a contradictory approach with the carefully composed finished buildings, the delicacy of sophisticated touch, the absence of chance. Although in assemblage his buildings in China seem basic and lack the practical conventions of architecture (insulation, drainage details, services) they make up for this in conviction and purity of purpose. A sense of rawness that is simply functional and highly contextual.

One of the main projects discussed was Caochangdi, a large artist quarter set within an existing village in the suburbs of Beijing. Caochangdi is an incredible place. The setup is quite complex due to its size and setting. I visited in November 2011 on an architectural study field trip with 15 students from the UK. It was a long way away from the city center and once there we discovered that the galleries and artist studios were spread out across the entire village. Before our trip we had set ourselves a mission to meet Ai Weiwei at his studio. It was always going to be tricky given our short length of stay and the politics of his situation. But we got really close! Ai Weiwei’s assistant very kindly arranged meetings for us to visit his friends, offering us a rare glimpse into the buildings not just as galleries and artist studios but as live/work units. The individual units are intimate, private and public frontage casually interlocked with each another. There is a genuine feeling of curated network and community. Unlike Beijing 798 Art Zone there are no fancy cafes or shops and hardly any tourists, at least back then anyway. It is hard to explain, I suggest visiting the current exhibition ‘Caochangdi: The Studio and the Community’ at the Architecture Gallery in conjunction with the art exhibition in the Main Galleries.

To what degree we can consider Ai Weiwei an architect is perhaps irrelevant. His architectural projects and artwork fascinates because it asks questions of contextuality, materiality, craftsmanship and political narrative – all the qualities we hold dear to our own work as architects.

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