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‘Nowhere is the Chinese counter-revolution more apparent’

China’s growing market for contemporary art has spawned an equally revolutionary crop of new buildings

First published in July 2008

Nowhere is the Chinese counter-revolution more apparent than in the field of contemporary art. As recently as two decades ago, the doctrines of socialist realism were sternly enforced and dissenters were persecuted. During the Cultural Revolution artists were compelled to portray manically grinning workers and peasants clustered around a beaming Chairman, and waving his little red book; now those images are the stuff of satire and almost anything goes. A few artists have become international stars, prices are soaring and huge factories have been transformed into studio-gallery complexes.

As always, artists were the pioneers, squatting in disused workshops, until the authorities, realizing money could be made, approved the upgrading of raw space. The 798 electronic components factory, a sprawling complex in the north-east of Beijing, has become the centerpiece of the DaShanZi Art District and Pace Wildenstein, the prestigious New York dealer, is about to join a hundred other galleries that operate there. The architectural potential is apparent in two adjoining spaces. East German architects designed the factory in the early 1950s during China’s brief flirtation with the Soviet Union, and they worked in the spirit of the Bauhaus. The stripped concrete shell that now bears the title ‘798’ is a masterpiece of functionalism with its spare ribs, arched vaults and expansive north glazing. A few machines have been left in situ, and red-painted slogans urging workers to exceed their quotas and crush enemies of the state, have now become found art.

“Nowhere is the Chinese counter-revolution more apparent than in the field of contemporary art.”

The subtle use of material gives the building a distinctive identity

The subtle use of material gives the building a distinctive identity

In the next building, Jean-Michel Wilmotte collaborated with MADA s.p.a.m. to upgrade an even more dramatic space for a Swiss foundation. In the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), natural lighting comes from a central lantern, filtering down through gently arched concrete gantries. The springiness of the structural frame and the harmonious proportions provide an ideal setting for art of every kind and the architects have calibrated their restoration to achieve a balance of muscular and refined. The central axis is emphasised by a black steel catwalk, and the palette of white and dark grey is a foil for the art as well as the old chimney and boiler. Three galleries of different sizes occupy the ground floor with a restaurant and small auditorium beyond; glass-walled offices, reception and study areas are located on the newly inserted mezzanine.

‘I take my inspiration from common places like villages or from the local, mostly poor people, who do not think about architecture and have to find their own way’

Functionalism of a different kind is the hallmark of the studios and galleries of Ai Weiwei. An acclaimed artist and agent provocateur, he was born in Beijing in 1957 but spent the next twenty years with his family in remote labour camps. Following a 12-year stay in New York, he returned to Beijing and established his company, FAKE Design (which the Chinese pronounce like another four-letter word). In 1999, he built a live-work compound in the village of Caochangdi, on the northern outskirts of the city. It’s an austere composition of plain brick walls and concrete slabs in which everything is reduced to a bare minimum. Its beauty lies in the artist’s intuitive sense of light, space and material. He created similar studios, galleries and live-work spaces for friends, many of which are located in the same neighbourhood. Jacques Herzog described them as ‘simple and archaic’, to which Ai responded: ’ I do not have to prove to myself that I’m better than other architects. I take my inspiration from common places like villages or from the local, mostly poor people, who do not think about architecture and have to find their own way.’

Now recast as the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, by Jean-Michel Wilmotte collaborating with MADA s.p.a.m

Now recast as the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, by Jean-Michel Wilmotte collaborating with MADA s.p.a.m

The artists’ residences of Courtyard I04 and IOS exemplify the qualities Herzog extolled, but the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, also in Caochangdi, plays interesting variations on the basic theme. Here, a linear container is folded to define an entry courtyard and the grey bricks are set in relief patterns three layers deep, that remind Ai of ruins. As he explains: ‘The studios are like tools; the gallery is a building designed for public use that needs an identity. We tried to do that with the facade; the bas relief creates some kind of shadow and shape. We explained to the workers how to do it and made detailed drawings of every brick.’

‘There are many frustrations, but it’s exciting to be working in China at this time. The ambition in society pushes you to explore new horizons’

In 2002, the city of Jinhua commissioned Ai to design a riverside park as a memorial to his late father, Ai Qing, an experimental poet who was banished to the far west of China in the anti-intellectual campaign of 1958. To make the 80m wide strip of land seem more expansive, Ai created an angular network of sunken paths that carry visitors on a path to a succession of 17 architectural follies. Working with Herzog and de Meuron (who contributed two cellular structures) Ai designed a gallery for Neolithic pottery and played the role of curator with an eclectic mix of architects on this site-specific artwork. Sadly, the city authorities have failed to utilise or maintain the pavilions, which are currently boarded up and awaiting an administrator who can infuse them with life.

Xu Tiantian's first building in Songzhuang put the village on the map for artists and collectors

Xu Tiantian’s first building in Songzhuang put the village on the map for artists and collectors

One of the architects who made a modest contribution (a public lavatory) to the Jinhua Architectural Park is the Harvard-educated Xu Tiantian, who established her office, DnA, in Beijing in 2004. One of the few women principals among the new crop of architects, she was invited to submit a proposal for an art centre in Songzhuang, a village that is 30km east of the capital. Xian Ting Li, whom some regard as the godfather of contemporary art, settled here with other artists who had been ejected from their commune in Beijing in the early 1990s.

The first decade was a struggle, but, as art prices began to skyrocket, international dealers ventured out to the village, and the artists place to exhibit their work.

The clustered form of Xiaopu Cultural Centre in Songzhuang by Xu Tiantian, founding principal of Beijing based architects DnA

The clustered form of Xiaopu Cultural Centre in Songzhuang by Xu Tiantian, founding principal of Beijing based architects DnA

Xu won the commission and was asked to break ground in 10 days and complete the building in three months on a bare-bones budget. She worked on site every day to supervise construction, employing red bricks to clad the concrete frame and clay tiles for the floors. The double-height gallery with its saw-tooth roof dominates its surroundings like a church on the prairie, and it gave Songzhuang the showcase that cemented its reputation. A second more complex building (Xiaopu Cultural Centre) quickly followed. Xiaopu was also built quickly and cheaply, but Xu was able to create a much richer cluster of galleries, which are clad in corrugated metal and glass and zig-zag around a central courtyard to multiply the surfaces available for display. A steel stair spirals up to artists’ live-work spaces, which share a roof terrace and echo the tight-knit structure of the village.

Songzhuang is booming. There are now around two thousand artists working there and the villagers have decided to build high-rise apartments, Beijing-style, for themselves and lease their courtyard houses to the newcomers. Xu’s success has brought her more ambitious commissions, including an art museum for Ordos, a fast-growing city in Inner Mongolia. Most recently she has developed her interest in angular geometries, designing a daringly stacked and cantilevered visitors’ centre in the Changbai mountain resort area and other boldly modeled leisure facilities. ‘There are many frustrations, but it’s exciting to be working in China at this time,’ says Xu. ‘The ambition in society pushes you to explore new horizons.’

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