This op-ed was initially conceived as a series of critical Twitter messages by Fred Scharmen, aka sevensixfive, directed at blogs (including Archinect) that have been providing ongoing exposure of new architecture projects in China, considering China's unfair capture and treatment of artist/activist Ai Weiwei. In an effort to investigate this issue further, and hopefully spark a little productive debate, we invited Fred to pen this op-ed.
Should the media protest the treatment of Ai Weiwei by ceasing promotion of all new architectural work in China? Should architects refuse to take on new work in China? Should we continue to support the work of architects and artists in China, but only with a disclaimer? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
At the time of this writing, the artist Ai Weiwei has been detained without charge by Chinese authorities for 53 days. Given the history of Ai Weiwei's unique relationship to architecture, and the ways in which our discipline, and Weiwei himself, intersect with the Chinese state, the ongoing uncritical promotion of design work within China by international media outlets feels naive at best, and destructive at worst.
Weiwei has famously compared the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing, for which he is credited as co-designer, to a "pretend smile", worn by the Chinese state, along with the rest of the pageantry surrounding the 2008 summer games, to distract the world from internal issues like human rights, corruption, and pollution. This false smile persists.
Ai Weiwei is no stranger to the political uses of architecture. In addition to the Bird's Nest stadium and other projects, in 2007 he designed and built his own studio complex in Caochangdi Village, a suburb of Beijing that has since become a thriving arts district. The same year, he co-organized, along with Herzog & deMeuron, the Ordos 100 project, an even larger arts district in Inner Mongolia. This area is rich in the coal used to fuel China's economic expansion, and has one of the fastest growing GDPs on the planet. The project is based around one hundred 10,000 square foot villas, each designed by a seperate architect, hand selected by Ai and H&dM. In the center of the vast neighborhood plan is a copy of Weiwei's Beiing studio complex. Only phase one has begun construction, and the city of Ordos is currently one of China's famous 'Ghost Cities' the empty shell of an overspeculated and underpopulated real estate bubble, or strategically banked housing stock for China's rapidly urbanizing population, depending on who you ask.
Weiwei was invited by officials in Shanghai to design and build yet another version of his studio complex in that city, as a catalyst for even more arts based development. In early 2011, his permit was revoked, and the central government destroyed the building while it was still under construction. It's widely believed that the destruction of his Shanghai studio was intended as warning and retaliation for other ongoing projects that had begun to occupy a continuum between art, architecture, and political activism.
After the devestating Sichuan eathquake in 2008, Weiwei began collecting names of students killed when their school buildings, many constructed without regard to safety inspection and regulations, collapsed. This was a situation that had been downplayed and hidden by local and national governments in China. He began continuosly posting these names in many online venues, as part of his wide ranging internet presence. When police harrassment began to intensify, he further fed the cycle by documenting the harrassment itself. In 2009, he was beaten so badly with sticks by the police, that he required emergency brain surgery on a stopover in Munich.
In pre-olympic China, optimism abounded among western architects about the prospects for openness and democracy within their new client state, and there was much speculation, particularly among prominent academic practitioners, about the role that their projects could play in the transformation. Weiwei's collaborator on the Bird's Nest, Jaques Herzog, told Der Speigel in 2008, just before the games:
"We too cannot accept the disregard for human rights in any form whatsoever. However, we do believe that some things have opened up in this country. We see progress. And we should continue from that point. We do not wish to overemphasize our role, but the stadium is perhaps a component of this path, or at least a small stone."
The diffuse, porous space of the stadium's perimeter would be difficult for authorities to monitor, new forms would engender new social relations:
"... our vision was to create a public space, a space for the public, where social life is possible, where something can happen, something that can, quite deliberately, be subversive or -- at least -- not easy to control or keep track of ... We see the stadium as a type of Trojan horse."
And as early as 2004, Rem Koolhaas was writing, in WIRED Magazine, about the potentially transformative effect of the looping form in OMA's newly designed CCTV Building:
"But in China, money does not yet have the last word. CCTV is envisioned as shared conceptual space in which all parts are housed permanently, aware of one another’s presence – a collective. Communication increases; paranoia decreases."
From the perspective we now occupy, in mid - 2011, we can point out, in no uncertain terms, the falseness of these claims, and the failure of these hopes. Things have not opened up in China. The stadium was not a component, or even a stone, on the path to any openness. It was not a Trojan Horse. Sharing conceptual space has not resulted in a decrease in paranoia.
And in China, as elsewhere, money does have the last word. In early 2011, in a publication entitled "Building Rome in a Day", the Economist noted: "At current rates of construction, China can build a city the size of Rome in only two weeks." Despite concerns (despite the Ghost Cities, and the existence of 100,000 unsold apartments in Beijing), the Economist assures its readers that the Chinese real estate boom is not a bubble about to burst. According to the Economist, there is still money to be made. Real estate prices in Shanghai increased by 150% from 2003 to 2010. In 2011, housing investment as a component of Chinese GDP tripled.
Since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, coverage of iconic architecture in China has continued unabated. The hollowness that accompanied words about new form and social change from a previous wave of academic western practitioners has faded away. Instead of broad critique of those empty claims, the international architectural press has moved towards coverage of even more spectacular projects in China. Instead of opening up a dialogue about the possible role of architecture in social transformation, architects working in China have backed away from any expression of hope for increased openness and respect for basic human rights, but they haven't stopped working.
Even as, at the burst of the bubble, work elsewhere in the world has begun to again take more of a social and organizational turn, China is still a place where large shiny double curvature wins the day. The press has embraced China as a kind of last redoubt for parametric digital formalism and iconic shapeshifting, seemingly blind to the role that these cultural projects play as loss leaders for large development schemes. As the Economist notes, there is still money on the table when it comes to Chinese real estate, and there is still soft power to be capitlized on when it comes to the transmutation of cultural institutions into global prestige and legitimacy. The false smile gets wider, and toothier.
To trace Ai Weiwei's architectural trajectory is instructive. From his involvement with, and later disavowal of, the (iconic, mediated, overstructured) Bird's Nest stadium, to his turn towards the (hidden, censored, understructured) school buildings in Sichuan, there is the path of someone who has started to realize that his work in building was being used by the state, who then turned built work back against the state, using it to reflect the human cost of internal corruption.
This isn't to raise again the question of wether or not to work with "evil" clients, we are free to work for whoever we choose (or who chooses us). This is about recognizing the political and economic uses of architecture. To most institutions and governments, architecture is literally a tool. Weiwei's engagement with built work, and his artistic practice, with its focus on reproduction, authenticity, individuality, and the constant issue, in a large country like China, or any networked society, of people-as-pixels, became enmeshed in these issues. Given that he was beaten, nearly killed, and forcibly detained, while advocating for building code enforcement, you might say he's taken these questions to their furthest possible conclusion.
There are no easy answers. I personally believe that new form does have the potential to enable new social relationships. If we, as architects, didn't believe that built space could change lives, we wouldn't do what we do. The students whose bones were broken in Sichuan certainly had their lives changed by architecture. When I was in Ordos in 2008, to present the villa project I had worked on for Keller Easterling Architects, spending a week in that environment, with those people, and meeting Weiwei certainly had an effect on my life. It is not enough to merely say that CCTV is an office building for government censors, and the Bird's Nest is a giant political distraction, Rem and Herzog were wrong, and that all building in China is wrong. Just as it is equally unproductive to simply reproduce the press releases for the latest spectacular cultural institution to be completed or proposed in China , without caveat or disclaimer: this state jails artists. "Stunningly Omnipresent Masters Make Mincemeat of Memory". Architecture is large enough to be both radical social transformer and retrograde political instrument, if we're willing to talk about it. These things must be the beginning terms in a larger conversation about architecture in China, and in the world.
Original sources for above photos:
Weiwei's installation on the facade of Haus der Kunst in Munich. Photo: © monoculaire
Physical model of the Ordos project. Photo: © Fred Scharmen
Beijing National Aquatics Center (Beijing Water Cube). Photo: © Fred Scharmen
Sichuan Province after 2008 earthquake. China. Photo: © Wu Zhiyi / World Bank
Unlicensed Architect, Amateur Urbanist, Uncredited Designer, Sometime Researcher and Writer