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Outrage: ‘If you think teachers are more important than school design, ask Sichuan’

When my children are away from me, I want them to be safe. Building design is central to that safety.

A child is carried out of the rubble and laid tenderly on the road beside another. Floured in dust, a boy’s feet, his head crushed flat. A doctor pumps a tiny chest, checks for a pulse. A mother cries, bent over a small body.

Twenty schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing at least 5,000 children. The numbers were kept confidential by the Chinese government, but Ai Weiwei’s studio conducted an investigation into the disaster, to count and name the dead, and expose the shoddy construction that killed them. The investigation made Ai an enemy of the state, and led to his 81-day incarceration in 2011 and the confiscation of his passport, only recently restored.

If you think the provision of a good teacher is more important than a good school, you are wrong. Next to a home, there is nothing that matters more than the quality design and construction of a school building.

When my children are away from me, I want them to be safe - from bullies, predators, disease, asbestos, intimidation, fire and collapse. I want them safe in their beds, and safe at school. Building design is central to that safety.

Schools are not only places of learning, they are havens. In conflict zones or disaster areas, they are impromptu shelters, because of  their association with safety and community, and their easily accessible locations. They are where people sleep, eat or hide.

Israel met with international fury when it bombed United Nations’ schools in Gaza that were sheltering displaced people, killing 45 - including 17 children. In Rwanda, 45,000 Tutsis were slaughtered after they took shelter in a technical school, now the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre. The layout of a school will have an impact on its usefulness during a crisis - they should be designed for it, anticipate it.


Ai Weiwei’s ‘Straight’, currently on show at the Royal Academy

But the children killed in Sichuan were not in a conflict zone, they were the powerless victims of greed - construction corruption is a vice that plagues capital building programmes around the world, from the Olympic Games to social housing, resulting in hastily built projects in which occupants are the victims of supposed benefactors who depart with pockets lined. And schools are often victims of corruption because the user is powerless, does not have a voice. Due to the one-child policy, many parents lost their only child in Sichuan. The New York Times reported that, to quell dissent, parents were paid ‘hush money’ of several thousand pounds to stop protesting the school collapses.

Ai’s installation Straight (2008-12) - at the Royal Academy of Arts as part of his major retrospective - is a memorial for the children of Sichuan. For this work, the Chinese artist, also known for his architecture, clandestinely purchased 200 tonnes of twisted steel rebar reclaimed from the schools’ ruins and had it straightened by hand. More than 200 hammer strikes per rebar were required to complete the task. In the gallery, 90 tonnes of rebar are laid in a seismic wave on the floor, while on the walls, the names and ages of victims are listed (4, 7, 14 …). The documentary screened alongside warns of disturbing footage.

In Straight, the straightening of the rebar is like the process of Ai’s research into the tragedy itself - an attempt to set the record straight, one hammer strike at a time. It is also, in a literal sense, slow progress towards the opposite of crooked - another reference perhaps to corruption by an artist who often uses puns in the titles of his work or references to the online lingo used to subvert China’s censors.

We often debate the social purpose of architecture, but in Ai’s work, architecture is fundamentally a political act, and what and how we build (also what we save or demolish) is a powerful determinist force. Notions such as identity, values and history are not just concepts, but tangibles that can be constructed or destroyed. We can be victims of the act of construction and destruction, as were the children of Sichuan. But for Ai, what we make and build can equally give us power as an act of political resistance - each hammer strike on rebar is a cry of protest and social action.

By this measure, architects underestimate the political impact of what they build. We have grown accustomed to architecture as part of the design industry - watches, teacups and buildings - but what about architecture as social action or political protest, as a force for change, good or bad? Beholden to their patrons, architects may be powerless to effect change in the macro, but as it is all in the detail we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the micro. As Ai says, ‘A small act is worth a thousand thoughts.’

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