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Architects should support Ai Weiwei, not the Chinese government

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The RIBA should hang a banner on its facade calling for the release of Ai Weiwei, says Christine Murray

An architect joked this week that we should all line up in front of the Chinese embassy, as do the Falun Gong in front of the RIBA opposite, to protest against the institute’s silence over the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei.

The joke masks a frustrating truth: it is at times like these that having an institute such as the RIBA should be useful. Architects have been accused of silence over the Chinese artist’s imprisonment. But there are many architects who would like to push China on human rights, and either don’t know how to make a difference (how does the average architect speak up, exactly, if not via the RIBA?), or fear blacklisting in a country that currently employs a great number of British architects.

Although the RIBA called for the release of Ai through a spokesperson, it also said that it ‘supported the rights of individual members to protest’ – deftly putting the onus back on its members.

The RIBA should, like other institutions, hang a banner on its facade calling for Ai’s release. It would be easy to do. Far easier than tackling the thorny underlying issue of whether architects should accept work in non-democratic regimes. Ai himself has said that architects working in China who do not raise concerns about human rights are committing ‘a crime’.

I touched on this issue some months ago in my column at the time of the Arab spring. As I said then, it would be naive to issue a blanket statement on working in non-democratic regimes: do you turn down work rebuilding an earthquake-stricken town in China? What about travelling there as a lecturer?

Practices must make the decision to enter a non-democratic country on a project-by-project basis. The decision should be based on solid research and thoroughly debated by the directors.You should be able to say why you took on the project in one sentence, even if that sentence reads: Because we needed the work, otherwise redundancies would ensue.

Ai’s own work has ethical idiosyncrasies, but still provocatively moves the debate in China forward. He has admitted to mixed feelings about the regime’s use of his ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium.

The city of Ordos, home to the Ordos 100 project, for which Ai and Jacques Herzog invited 100 international architects to design 1,000m2 villas, is located on land from which hundreds of thousands of ethnic Mongolians have been evicted by government order. The oppression of tribal Mongols in Ordos continues – last week Mongolian herdsmen and police clashed in protests in this area.

I have met Ai on more than one occasion. I found him wonderful, playful, thoughtful. His arrest came as a shock. I believed, as many did, that his international reputation would protect him from arrest. Ai is the most prominent figure of a number of artists and activists who have gone missing in recent months in what is perceived as a bid to quell the so-called Jasmine Revolution.

Calling for Ai’s release is the right thing to do. Is working in China?

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Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    I think the RIBA has enough to do with architectural issues without being 'human rights' issues in a foreign country into it.
    China's treatment of chinese citizens is none of the RIBA's business. It would be odd for the Belgian Women's Knitting Circle to make a song and dance over the RIBA competition to design a new electricity pylon for example. We can object as individuals of course.
    As for hanging banners....it is NOT easy. The RIBA has been exploring that very subject for a number of years now, 'planners' and NIMBYs are very much against the idea :-)

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