Ai Weiwei

The artist Ai Weiwei was taken into custody on sunday, and his studio has been raided by Chinese police: link

At this time, no one has heard anything from him, or from Chinese officials regarding his apparent arrest and detainment.

Weiwei has been no stranger to the political uses of art and architecture. He designed and built his studio complex in Beijing, which has become the center of an active arts district. He collaborated with Herzog & deMeuron and CADG on the design of the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium. He created the masterplan and co-organized the Ordos 100 project in 2008, inviting 100 architects from around the world to design villas for a new city in Chinese Inner Mongolia. The villas are unfinished, and Ordos is, for now at least, one of China's famous Ghost Cities.

He has seemed to have a complex set of attitudes towards the relationship between politics and building in his native country. Shortly before the 2008 Olympic's opening ceremony, he denounced the Bird's Nest, and the preparations for the olympics in general, as a "pretend smile". After the Sichuan earthquake in southern China in 2008, Weiwei began compiling lists of the names of students who had died in what many alleged were shoddily constructed school buildings, the victims of poor construction and state corruption. In 2009, he was beaten by police, presumably for his continued involvement in that investigation. In 2010, he was invited by the governor of Shanghai to build another studio in that city, in order to spur arts based cultural and financial development. In 2011, his permit was revoked, and the central government demolished the studio before it was even finished.

Ai Weiwei is a figure who seems to have been used, and used badly, by the Chinese state. His involvement with large, media intensive, iconic architectural projects is a mirror of the situation many architects face, when working with politically repressive, socially unjust, economically disparate, and environmentally unsustainable governments and clients.

His disavowal of the (iconic, mediated, overstructured) Bird's Nest stadium, and his turn towards the (hidden, censored, understructured) school buildings in Sichuan is emblematic. His subsequent beating, arrest and now detainment by Chinese authorities, during a period when social revolution against repressive regimes is on the rise, is chilling.

I'm interested in what others think, here at what feels like a transitional moment, of Weiwei's relationship to architecture? Especially given the explicit hopes voiced by many western architects in the first half of the last decade, that bringing new form to China would help engender the emergence of new social structures?

Apr 4, 11 1:26 pm

Frankly (and perhaps, also judging from the number of responses here), most architects do not give a fuck about this. Everyone is just trying to make some dough to feed themselves by working in China.

Ai Weiwei or not, Architecture will go ahead there. I head that Lebeus Woods has decided not to work in china anymore. It might have more impact if someone like Foster does the same, but I doubt it will ever happen.

Apr 4, 11 2:35 pm

765 Frontline just showed (last week) a great documnetary where they followed him for a bit. It covered all the way through his studio being demolished earlier this year Who's Afraid of Ai Wewei

Apr 4, 11 2:45 pm

@sameolddoctor - maybe you're right, most architects working in China don't give a fuck, but I was more interested in what folks here thought of the situation.

Thanks for mentioning the Lebbeus declaration, was going to include a link to that, but the original post was getting too heavy. Here's a link, now: link. I'd be interested to know of anyone else who's signing on to that? Is this even theoretically effective? What else can be done?

@nam, thanks for posting the frontline thing, was also going to link that, too, it's a really good segment.

Apr 4, 11 2:58 pm

I saw Lebbeus Wood's blog post and was impressed. While we can debate what the impact of his decision is, at least he is willing to take a stand on something. I'm surprised that the intelligent discussion/comments typically found in his posts aren't happening and have been replaced by messages of support from China.

Apr 4, 11 3:27 pm
St. George's Fields

I honestly have no idea what Ai Wei Wei has done that would piss off the government that badly.

He's a great designer but an artist? Sorry, his art-- while beautifully done-- isn't that evocative or salacious to warrant such censorship and intimidation. Although that could be purely a phenomenom of my cultural reference point where the use of protest and criticism in art is quite common.

I'm maybe underestimating the Chinese government but I have a real hard time believing that a population of a 1,000,000,000+ people can be effectively prevented from experiencing any form of contentious material.

As for the school inspection part, the Chinese government has even admitted that this is a significant issue. Example.

There's a quite a bit of stories originating from Chinese media about the faulty nature of construction-- independent from the Ai Wei Wei issue involving the school. Lastly, substandard Chinese construction products have made headlines in the U.S.-- such as the toxic drywall that destroyed hundreds of thousands of houses.

Sent from a computer stamped "Made in China."

Apr 4, 11 4:03 pm

I thought this thread would be about some kind of an Adobe illustrator plugin called weiwei.

So the chinese government cracks down on a dissident. Sounds consistent with their typical douchebaggery. Chinese government is pure evil, but only slightly more so than other countries. At least they care when you call them names. Ours stopped listening decades ago. You can scream your dead off, and noone will care. They found more creative ways to keep you shackled down.


Apr 4, 11 4:44 pm

@ St George I think the Chinese govt's biggest issue (based off of my viewing of the Frontline piece) had more to do with their displeasure at his ongoing involvement/critique of the govt's response/fault re: the Sichuan earthquake.....

Extending to his being able to organize people to assist him with exposing officials, corruption etc....

It was interesting to see that at least some Chinese people appear to view him almost as a cross between a Taoist teacher and Warhol....

I think at one point he is even reffered to as Master Weiwei

Apr 4, 11 4:57 pm
St. George's Fields

Actually, from what I've gathered around the internet and various news sites, the "problem" with Ai isn't his art, architecture or design work.

Their bigger beef seems to be with his 'constant and non-stop' social media presence on the internet. I'm not sure what the laws are in China regarding accessing "blocked content" or using internet proxies.

But I think the opening lines on these stories should read "Ai Weiwei, an internet blogger and sometimes artists..."

Because the slant on these issues make it sound like his art and design work is the reason for his "suspicious" detainment.

Apr 4, 11 6:57 pm

st george exactly. although i would suggest that for Ai Weiwei the two are closely linked. Especially with regards to the conerns that China places on population "control".

As i said earlier his ability to reach/organize people....

Apr 4, 11 7:08 pm

I saw the article this morning... my thoughts:

ai weiwei is in a difficult position because there are so few chinese architects/artists that have such international renown - and as someone who is pretty much at the center of the beijing arts scene (and if you've ever been a part of a group of artists) you invariably become wrapped up in the social commentary of your colleagues. his arrest is highly symbolic because he is a leader and central figure. I'm sure there are others.

st. george - the internet is just one of many media for disseminating information - it's mostly the activities of the group of artists and individuals that the chinese govt are concerned about. a LOT of political organizing happens off-line. what you see online is only the tip of the iceberg.

anyway - pretty scary. hope he makes it out ok.

Apr 4, 11 11:45 pm
St. George's Fields

I understand that.

I guess my point was that the Chinese government seems to have actually wrote him checks and he seems to have cashed them for his artistic work.

But I was just merely hinting at the idea that Ai Weiwei was not persecuted as an artist, designer or 'architect.'

He was persecuted as a blogger, dissenter and critic.

Not that China really has those freedoms but it would be an equivalent difference between freedom of speech and freedom of press. Where as art can be synonymous with speech... blogging, tweeting et cetera would obviously be the press part.

What Ai Weiwei's particular is not really a "crackdown" on speech, per ce. If the government was interested in silencing his artistic endeavors, I'm pretty sure they would be confiscating and destroying his art works.

In both the US and China, freedom of expression (speech, press et al) are constitutional rights. However, China has no early court cases like Marbury vs. Madison that push 'freedom of expression' from a de fact to a de jure status. Meaning, the concept clearly exists and is a stated part of their fundamental government but the actual law has yet to produce any actual sufficient practice.

Apr 5, 11 12:10 am

they have destroyed his work in the past.

Apr 5, 11 12:32 am

hi all--joining the discussion without having viewed all the links, so apologies if i'm missing something.

st george's fields: i agree, ai is being persecuted for his critical stance against the regime--in a way his role as critic has overshadowed his status as an artist, although that is what gave/gives him the platform and the mike.

this because architects that are famous enough also have platforms and mikes of their own--woods chose to use his to make a statement. my reaction (probably common) was initially cynical "huh, he has work in china?" and then i thought "well, there's all those other people he hasn't protested about"--but you know what? good for him. it creates noise, it gets people talking, and hopefully it will benefit not only ai but also liu xiaobo and hundreds (thousands? more?) of unknown political prisoners. it's what he can do with his platform and mike.

765: re the new form = new social structures argument--when, who? it'll be interesting if they say something now.

from a historical pov, this debate on architecture and the politics of its clients seems to return every few years--we had it between eisenman and diane ghirardo (on italian fascism), and earlier between john krier and joan ockman (on nazi germany). both of those debates were ultimately unsatisfactory... perhaps we can do a better job this time around.

Apr 5, 11 12:38 am

As William Gibson said: "If you want a truly splendid living example of what our culture so incorrectly insists on calling balls, see Ai Weiwei."

The guy called bullshit on one of the most prominent buildings in the world, after helping to design it. He was beaten so badly by secret police thugs that he needed emergency brain surgery, over an issue that's essentially building code enforcement! And he still refused to back down.

There's no clear line between his art practice and his online activist work. When he was in Ordos, he blogged every project, and was constantly taking pictures and uploading them, the entire thing was one grandiose open ended perfromace. The multiples, the displacements, the distributed labor, and public nature of almost everything he does is like the inverse of the people-as-pixels computational aesthetic of the state. Compare the specatular opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics to this installation commemorating one of the many deaths in Sichuan. The array of mass produced (made in China!) backpacks spells out a quote from a mother: "She lived happily for seven years in this world."

@aml: Jacques Herzog in Der Speigel on the Bird's Nest:

We are now convinced that building there was the right decision. 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.

... 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. We fulfilled the spatial program we were given, but interpreted it in such a way that it can be used in different ways along it perimeters. As a result, we made everyday meeting places possible in locations that are not easily monitored, places with all kinds of niches and smaller segments ... in a country like China these kinds of urban spaces acquire a different, almost political meaning.

See also: Rem Koolhaas on CCTV (from the Beijing Manifesto in the issue of WIRED that AMO curated:
pdf link ):

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.

There are reports that, since sunday, whenever Weiwei's name is mentioned on BBC in China, the signal is blanked. They guy who does that, what building do you think his office is? As Rem's famous fortune cookie says: "Stunningly Omnipresent Masters Make Mincemeat of Memory"
Apr 6, 11 12:00 am

oops, forgot to add the link to the Herzog interview:,1518,569011,00.html

Apr 6, 11 12:01 am

Re: "Especially given the explicit hopes voiced by many western architects in the first half of the last decade, that bringing new form to China would help engender the emergence of new social structures?"

hmm, so this is my take on this: The most important effect western architecture in China has, would be its role in introducing and increasing transnational flows of labor and capital. Think of all the highly educated, skilled individuals that are bringing with them their conflicting belief systems and dependence on an open and free internet - this I think directly promotes "the emergence of new social structures."

The Chinese government realizes that if it wants to maintain it's current economic growth it needs to encourage a more entrepreneurial, competitive and open economy - so there's a lot of internal as well as external pressure for the government to gradually allow more freedom.

So architecture - as a discipline that folds into broader economic and social processes - is having this beneficial effect. Emotionally I side with Lebbeus Woods, but I wonder if Rem and Herzog by introducing these tensions are ultimately the more effective ones, at pushing China towards greater freedom. (Although not in the way they would have liked to, I guess).

Apr 7, 11 4:51 am

I am inclined to agree with you, burke, but Rem and Herzog and others did not say: "Well, we're bringing a whole team of young westerners over, and they have strong opinions and they like twitter a lot, so we think that'll help". Instead they said: "This building has lot of hiding places, so it'll be difficult to use surveillance." and "This building is shaped like a big loop, so everyone will get to know each other and be nicer and less paranoid."

These are spurious claims from the start, and they've proved false, and I think that should be called out. H & dM made an iconic media spectacle and political distraction, Rem made an office building for government censors. Some of their junior staff may have gotten drunk in a bar and talked about Tiananmen Square, but that is kind of beside the point, no?

Why is Weiwei, an artist, better able to articulate the problems within architecture in China than the architects?

Here're two pieces illustrating the perspective and position of the Chines government on this:

Apr 7, 11 10:57 am

These above news articles of typical Chinese behavior - digging deep and finding questionable reasons to lock people up for good.

Apr 7, 11 5:41 pm

""Human rights" have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world."

Ha! The best of Chinese copy writing!

Apr 7, 11 5:50 pm

The sad part is that, in one sense, that's an accurate statement. Think of how flexible the western (or at least the official political American) definition of human rights is when applied selectively to the countries undergoing the Arab Spring uprisings: Tunisia: US is indifferent, Egypt: US is awkwardly silent, until it looks like change is inevitable, then we come with the big talk, Libya: outwardly silent, but scrambiling on the backchannels to organize a coalition and get someone else to front it, Yemen and Bahrian: Huh?

There are always avenues, that we ourselves leave open, through dissembling and bad faith, for others to use when setting up false equivalence, but there are always greater and lesser evils, as well.

Apr 7, 11 9:36 pm


you forgot Syria.

Why does everyone always forget Syria? Why?????

Apr 7, 11 9:49 pm

I'll be the contrarian here: Ai Weiwei got what he asked for.

Note, I didn't say he got what he deserve or any such thing. The entire world knows (by now) how chinese government reacts to such activities. Weiwei should know full well if he continued his stance, this will be the inevitable result. No surprise here.

How is what he did different from some dude with no desire of self preservation jumps off a bridge, for art, architecture or otherwise?

Note again that I am NOT justifying the chinese government's actions. But it being the governing force in China, its citizen should consider it as the given, much like gravity is on most planets.

I for one considers life and safety as more important than expressing one's opinion freely, graphically, or 3 dimensionally.

Apr 8, 11 1:31 pm

^ yes sure but you sit on things other people have given their lives for them, including your basic rights. ai weiwei got his work. he is doing it. makes his art all the more important. remember, art is not a hobby for artists.

Apr 8, 11 1:41 pm

Crazyhousecat, are you simply dismissing all the work that activists, social justice advocates, and -- dare I say -- revolutionaries and even artists do in countries that have oppressive regimes? Did MLK get what he asked for? Did Rachel Corrie get what she asked for?

Apr 9, 11 5:40 pm

What Ai Weiwei asked for, Crazyhousecat, was for some acknowledgement of the role that corruption in building code enforcement played in the deaths of thousands of children.

This is symptomatic of a recent uptick in China's human rights abuses, and Hillary Clinton called out Weiwei by name in the press. But I want to underscore exactly why I think this situation is relevant to architecture, and it's not about working for evil clients:

Architecture is a tool, literally. The Bird's Nest, CCTV, and many other high visibility projects are used instrumentally by organizations and institutions. Our discipline is often a subgenre of Public Relations and Propoganda. Sometimes this a good thing, sometimes it is a bad thing.

Weiwei was used, he seems to have realized it, he seems to have not liked it very much. In projects like Ordos, he seems to have experimented with a kind of role shift: from being used to being the user. He seems to have had fun with that. From there, from that point of nascent self-awareness, I would say he seems to have graduated into more sophisticated techniques: critiquing the modes and methods of use and usefulness. For this, he was beaten and put in jail.

My direct questions: why does it take an artist, who has only been experimenting with architecture for a few years, to point this condition out in such a clear way? Why are the world's most prominent, intelligent, and outspoken architects seemingly silent on this topic? In short, why doesn't anyone in our discipline have the kind of balls that Ai Weiwei does?

Apr 9, 11 7:14 pm

Sign on the Tate Modern:

Apr 9, 11 7:16 pm
"In short, why doesn't anyone in our discipline have the kind of balls that Ai Weiwei does?"

You mean complaining on Archinect doesn't count?

It's a chicken and egg thing.

Your voice will only matter once you establish your name as something of importance. You need to jump through a lot of conformist hoops to get to that point.

Turns out most people are not willing to sacrifice a lifetime of hard work for silly things like social justice.

Apr 9, 11 7:22 pm

"In short, why doesn't anyone in our discipline have the kind of balls that Ai Weiwei does?"

It is also to do with the role of architecture in society. One way or the other, in many cases we have to side with developers or governments (especially for larger projects), and most times these said clients are on the side that is opposed to social causes, be is eviction of peasants or the improper treatment of workers etc.

It seems to be a catch-22 for architects, wherein you won't get to build if you voice your opinions strongly, and if you do not get to build, your opinions do not matter anyways.

Apr 9, 11 10:30 pm

aiwewei was born a dissident.  he lived in a cave with his parents after his father was exiled for writing poetry that could be viewed as critical.  he did all of this knowing perfectly where it could end up.  and he did it anyway.  amazing if you think about it.

Apr 14, 11 9:39 pm

Apr 17, 11 9:10 pm

Apr 17, 11 9:14 pm

Icon interviews Ai Weiwei in Icon 093 (March 2011). He talks about art, architecture and how his architectural career, was "born out of pragmatism" 


It ends with this quote from him About two years ago I wrote an article about demolition as an architectural issue, because I think ruins are still a part of architectural activities. But I never imagined that my building would be turned to ruins so quickly.

Apr 25, 11 10:27 pm


FREE AI WEIWEI ~ these will be hopefully available next week (no profit, sold at cost). Designed and conceived by BIG.

Apr 25, 11 11:17 pm

paul will you make a news announcement when they go up for sale? I want one....




Apr 26, 11 9:26 am

Nam - definitely

Apr 26, 11 9:56 am

orhan..i don't get it.. am i missing something?

and is an aiweiwei memorial funny at this point?

May 23, 11 5:45 pm

did you ever think maybe it was not meant to be funny but ironic?

May 24, 11 12:22 am

i don't get it, orhan!

May 24, 11 2:58 pm



how are you guys doing now, get it?

May 24, 11 3:26 pm

Looks like the admitted tax cheat Ai Weiwei has been grated bail.

US media slow to pick up on news as always.

Jun 22, 11 9:41 pm

Ai Weiwei is one of *numerous* victimized people in China. The CCP is one of the most corrupt and oppressive regimes in the world, chucking yuan to cover their collective ass. Am I glad my ancestors left that old and rotting land.

What can you expect from a country where the best architectural feature is a huge frickin' wall? 


Jun 24, 11 12:31 am

"What can you expect from a country where the best architectural feature is a huge frickin' wall?"

The ability to project "soft power" and make other industrial powers run for their money, just like the good o'l days when the British got pissed off over cheap, well-made porcelain and silk goods.  Oh noes, we've got to beat the Chinese--with OPIUM!  We all know how that turned out don't we?  Ironic that we again are complaining about "cheap" Chinese goods.  O.o

"In both the US and China, freedom of expression (speech, press et al) are constitutional rights. However, China has no early court cases like Marbury vs. Madison that push 'freedom of expression' from a de fact to a de jure status. Meaning, the concept clearly exists and is a stated part of their fundamental government but the actual law has yet to produce any actual sufficient practice."

I believe its along the lines of "you have constitutional rights until you threaten the stability and 'well-being' of our society" in a very Mencius mode of understanding.  The benefit of the many, I suppose. 

Jun 25, 11 12:57 am

The benefit of the many, I suppose.

Something tells me suppression of constitutional rights like this comes not from any interest in the well-being of the People, but from the governments desire to preserve and project a certain image.

Jun 25, 11 12:47 pm

jk3hl:&nbsp; I think this requires some articulation.&nbsp; In a Mencius society (China), the well-being of its people and desire to preserve/project a certain image run hand-in-hand.&nbsp; In the past, various dynasties like the Tang Dynasty did just that; a Turkish ruling elite masking themselves as Chinese and creating a fictional narrative regarding their legitimacy to rule.&nbsp; The Tang ruling exercised a great deal of economic/religious tolerance, some of it through force by adopting other ethnic minorities into their armies.&nbsp; Without projection of power/image, stability of the Empire would be at stake.&nbsp;</p>
The CCP is no different.&nbsp; Isn&#39;t it ironic that NPR and other news sources are clamoring about the China threat?&nbsp; Well, I wouldn&#39;t be surprised:&nbsp; what if one of your neighbors built a McMansion in your suburban neighborhood.&nbsp; They have weird guests over, they&#39;re a little loud, and drive nice cars.&nbsp; Your jealous and your not the only one.&nbsp; The rich neighbor, knowing very well that his prosperity is causing a stir, ends up giving some of his money to you.&nbsp; He wants to show that he&#39;s sincere, but you just think he&#39;s a rich douchebag with ulterior motives, and wouldn&#39;t mind making him look like Marilyn Manson.&nbsp; Welcome to realpolitik. &nbsp; &nbsp;</p>
Mind you, the definition of human rights is far different in China versus the West.&nbsp; Its naive to believe that what can be done in the West in terms of civil liberties/rights can be applied just as quickly, if not quicker in China.&nbsp; A safer assumption would be to guarantee economic rights first, and adopt civil liberties later on. &nbsp;&nbsp;</p>


Jun 25, 11 6:23 pm

Universal Human Rights don't stop and start at borders. Apologists can go on all they want about how the defense of rights is naive because of some historical or cultural quirk, but that's horsesh*t.


Jun 26, 11 9:22 pm

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