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‘Ai is a generator, an initiator and a director of architecture’

The self-taught architect is better known for his art, but Ai Weiwei’s architectural studio has developed a restrained style that speaks to the fundamentals – form, structure, proportion and light

Disciplinary distinctions for Ai Weiwei are not important. The current exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, simply called Ai Weiwei, focuses on Ai’s art. However, as soon as you enter the galleries, or perhaps the Annenberg courtyard, it becomes apparent that he is in equal measure an activist, a collector, a curator, a critic and an architect, as well as an artist. It is his sensibilities in all of these fields that shape his immense output of work across many mediums.

Mainstream awareness of Ai’s architecture generally resides in his collaborations with Herzog & de Meuron on the ‘Bird’s Nest’ for the Beijing Olympics, the 2012 Serpentine Pavilion in London, or their joint curatorial project in Inner Mongolia, Ordos 100. However, the scale and range of his  architectural work is far more extensive, and needs to be considered across his oeuvre.

‘Ai sees architecture as shelter and fundamental to human survival, with the ability to transform people’s conditions of existence’

A self-taught architect, his practice began in 1999 through the simple need to build his own studio and residence. He sees architecture as shelter and fundamental to human survival, with the ability to ‘transform people’s conditions of existence’. Ai is the son of renowned poet Ai Qing and as a small boy was sent into exile with his family in north-west China for 20 years. His father was forced into hard labour and the family lived in rudimentary conditions, at one time in an underground hovel. Ai cites the formative realisation that he could alter their living conditions when he dug out just a few centimetres of dirt to give extra height and draw in more light by increasing the size of the apertures.

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Studio, Beijing, 1999: Ai Weiwei’s first project was his studio and residence witha T-shaped plan

In 1976 the family was rehabilitated to Beijing where Ai studied animation and was a founding member of the Stars Group of radical young artists. Seeking greater freedom, he moved to the US and in New York discovered Warhol, Jasper Johns and Duchamp. In 1993, he returned to China after 12 years abroad and started work on ready-mades that made reference to Chinese culture and politics.

For his studio, Ai sought a space that would allow him to live in a way he wanted; a place to make work, receive others, and be an artist. The building was designed in an afternoon and built in 100 days, and he now chooses to describe it in pragmatic terms that link the nature of the spaces with use, perhaps an indication of how he approached its design. A brick wall separates the street from a courtyard with a building to the north. The main building is comprised of two double-height spaces: the main studio with skylights and the reception room with a single tall window to the south for directional light. Adjoining are private rooms, distributed over two floors. The simplicity of his descriptions suggests the formal logic of the T-shaped plan and section, but belies its spatial sophistication and material presence.

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Source: Lou Foto/Alamy

Ai Weiwei’s Studio

The building’s architectural expression derives from the local context and readily available labour, knowledge, finance and materials. The studio is in Caochangdi, then a rural village on the outskirts of Beijing and home to a migrant community who travelled into the city for low-skill work. The studio is constructed of a reinforced-concrete frame with brick infill - grey on the outside and red inside, left exposed in the reception and living spaces but white rendered in the studio. As Ai moved into the village, artist friends asked him to build studios for them too. Caochangdi is now a thriving cultural community in the urban sprawl of Beijing with local inhabitants living alongside artists and international galleries. It includes nine compounds designed by Ai and numerous other buildings which mimic his architectural language.

Ai thinks in spatial terms and designs definitely. Those who have worked with Ai comment on the speed and precision of all his production, be it art or architecture. For both, he rarely produces work alone, instead drawing on the expert skills of craftspeople or builders. He generally leaves the delivery of a project to others, notoriously only visiting sites once the construction is almost complete.

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Courtyard 104, Caochangdi, Beijing. The use of in-between spaces to create a community is a consistent characteristic of Ai’s architecture. Courtyard 104 contains, among other things, the Urs Meile Gallery

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Source: Gaia Cambiaggi

Courtyard 104

In a country renowned for mega, novel architecture, with expressive forms and elaborate materials, Ai’s architecture is the antithesis. He creates modest buildings with a limited material palette that speak to the fundamentals - form, structure, proportion and light. The complexes he designed in Caochangdi containing multiple dwelling and workspaces repeat a very similar configuration of plan and spatial principles that he developed in his own studio, with alterations, that although subtle, change the relationships between private and public, visual and spatial intensity. This is evident in Courtyard 241, which contains 19 dwellings laid out in a grid of pedestrian alleys, but contains communal pockets among the strict geometric compositions.

‘A sense of humanity and community is a consistent characteristic of Ai’s architecture’

Also in Caochangdi, Courtyard 104, which contains among other things the Urs Meile gallery, takes the shape of the plot. The spaces between the buildings expand and contract in an equally dynamic way as the interiors, which oscillate dramatically between single- and double-storey spaces with light drawn in from above or beside. The architectural elements are distinctly small in scale, echoing the character of the surrounding village; however, as a totality the complex has a grandeur created by the sculptural quality of the buildings as well as the proportions and quality of the in-between spaces. This sense of humanity and community is a consistent characteristic of Ai’s architecture.

Such has been the renown of Caochangdi that the Shanghai municipal authorities commissioned Ai to design a studio in an outlying part of the city in the hope of creating a new cultural centre. Here, Ai created arguably his most impressive building that combined his simple pragmatism with a more exuberant spatial expression inspired by an unrealised masterplan created with Herzog & de Meuron for Jindong New Development Area. The building took a basic cuboid form, with a large courtyard at its centre. An exposed concrete frame established an orthogonal grid infilled with red brick which broke with the overall form at key places to allow it to dance within its framework. The interior was free of programmatic definitions, instead composed with spatial conditions that play with volume, light and visual connections. The concrete roof undulated in geometric steps around the building, expressed both inside and out. The building was never occupied, however, as the authorities pulled it down at the beginning of 2011 in a stand against Ai’s growing outspoken critique of the government. It is the subject of numerous artworks by Ai including Souvenir from Shanghai, which encloses a Qing bed in salvaged rubble from the studio. It now resides in collective memory, possibly more powerfully than if it were to still exist.

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Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Caochangdi, Beijing, 2007 Ai designed first art space solely dedicated to photography and video art in China

Architecture forms the subject and material of much of Ai’s artwork. From Straight, 150 tonnes of hand-straightened reinforcement bars, a homage to the children who lost their lives in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 due to poor construction quality (AR October 2015), to Fragments, part of his ‘Future and Maps’ series, which uses architectural salvage material - temples and furniture - dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties to create sculptures that represent the outline of the map of China. Even when architecture is not a direct reference it is still very present. His exceptional ability to read architectural drawings and decipher spatial qualities is evident in his installations in galleries worldwide, after more than 100 exhibitions he has been unable to visit due to the confiscation of his passport in 2011. As is most clearly evidenced at the Royal Academy, he uses the galleries as part of the works - they are complicit, not just as display spaces but in helping to convey the meaning of the works.

This is equally the case with projects that might be defined as urban interventions, somewhere between sculpture and architecture. These extend from Concrete, a tall sliced cylinder at Soho New Town Beijing, which stands as a critique to the surrounding development, to the 1.5km stepped landscape he created on the Yiwu River. In all cases the natural and built topography and spatial conditions are implicit in the sculptural quality and meaning of the works.

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Source: Corbis

Studio, Shanghai, 2011. This studio took two years to build but was razed to the ground in one day: Ai Weiwei’s battle with government officials as performance art

Despite his interest in the conceptual and spatial ideas of architecture, Ai expresses an ambiguous relationship with the profession. He was drawn to architecture as it ‘relates so directly to politics and reality’ and perhaps had an aspiration that it would be a means to instigate social change in different ways than his art. Many of his projects offer a critique of, and alternative to, the rapid, economic-driven development taking place in cities all over China. These are most successful in localised areas such as Caochangdi, where land values are low and the scale is small. Architecture became problematic for Ai on his very public projects, in particular his involvement with the Beijing Olympic Stadium. When he saw the government using the Olympics as a propaganda tool, with architecture as a statement of power, Ai publicly dissociated himself with the project.

In 2007, Ai was invited by developer Cai Jiang to build luxury villas in Ordos, at a time when he was moving away from architecture to focus on the ever-increasing demands of his art. With Herzog & de Meuron, he selected a hundred emerging architectural practices from across the world to each develop proposals for a villa. For Ai, the project was largely social, concerned with bringing younger architects together who had been working within their own fixed conditions of place and culture, and offering them a common starting point to develop ideas and test them in built work. The project was never fully realised and the site remains a ghost town.

In this way Ai is a generator, an initiator and a director of architecture. He assesses the level and focus of his engagement with conditions internal and external to a project. His best work has an immediacy and directness, where his judgement of these conditions is so well-tuned that it allows physical and emotional inhabitation of the architecture. This often involves negotiating a fine balance between logic and pragmatism, with wilfulness and a certain degree of idiosyncrasy where rules and architectural conventions, even those he sets for himself, are broken.

Ai Weiwei

Where: Royal Academy of Arts

When: Until 13 December 2015

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