Ai Weiwei: I jumped on the wrong train [2007]

Ai Weiwei is China’s most renowned conceptual artist. The latest Documenta in Kassel featured his Template structure, as well as the Fairytale project, which entailed the on-site participation of 1001 Chinese people. Born in 1957, Weiwei was raised in Shihezi, a town in Chinese Turkestan to which his father, the poet Ai Qing, had been exiled. A self-proclaimed architect, Ai Weiwei established FAKE Design eight years ago. Since then, his firm has designed and realized an impressive number of projects.

Recently Weiwei served as artistic consultant to Herzog & de Meuron for the Swiss architects’ design of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Weiwei lives and works in Chaochangdi, a village on the outskirts of Beijing, not far from the airport expressway. Many of the buildings in this area are his work. The subject of countless interviews, Weiwei claims that talking about his work is never boring. If he weren’t discussing his projects with me, he says, he’d probably be talking to one of his staff or even a neighbourhood cab driver. At the end of the interview I ask what will happen to the stadium – known as the ‘bird’s nest’ – after the Olympics. He reveals that Jacques Herzog envisions the stadium being used for weddings. We laugh. A bird’s nest transformed into a love nest? Not a bad idea.

An interview with Ai Weiwei by Bert de Muynck | Mark Magazine #12, 2008

– – –
Please tell us about your first experiences with architecture.

Ai Weiwei: I grew up in a camp in the countryside under very difficult circumstances. In order to survive, we had to do everything ourselves, from building living quarters and doing agricultural work to digging clay for bricks. By the age of ten, I was used to this type of work. To me, architecture is a question of survival. It’s about making efficient, cost-effective structures and not about creating something beautiful. It’s about work with a purpose.

Do you think a lot of architecture has no purpose?

AW: Let’s put it this way – if there is a purpose, it’s one I don’t admire. There is too much waste, the language is often unclear, and frequently the architect’s efforts are not intelligent. Architecture is a moral-political question, not just a technical one. The desire to build is a basic instinct, a necessity if one is to survive in nature. Today architecture has become a profession taught in universities by instructors whose courses are devoted to making architecture crazy. All those students want to be stars. They are far less interested in how to survive. Architecture can be intelligent only when it’s true to its fundamental nature.

Your architectural career started with your own house.

AW: Yes, but initially I wasn’t aware of what I had done. Later, Shigeru Ban saw this house and said the only architect in China is Ai Weiwei, blah blah blah. His words made me more conscious of what I was doing. After that, many friends came asking for help. Often I said yes, because the problems I’d confronted could all be solved with basic common sense. My work doesn’t look special. It doesn’t require a great deal of special training. It’s really all about making moral and aesthetic judgements rather than technical ones. During the past seven years, we’ve done about 40 projects, including housing, landscaping, a stadium, a cultural facility, a bar and a restaurant. If it can be called ‘architecture’, we do it.

Would you say the design of your house is fundamental?

AW: I’d call it ‘essential’, because I used minimal materials to create a maximal volume. It has a very practical layout and not much interior design. The architectural language isn’t trendy. Maybe it’s become trendy because you live in it. It has become fashionable, and it’s been copied in this area. When it was being constructed, however, the farmers who helped build it thought it wasn’t finished. They didn’t understand why I didn’t want any interior design. I had to tell them I’d run out of money.

An interview with Ai Weiwei by Bert de Muynck | Mark Magazine #12, 2008

How would you describe your architecture? Do you talk about style?

AW: No, I don’t talk about style, but if you deny all styles, your style emerges anyway. My style is to reduce all superfluous effort – to do the work in an essential and necessary way. In discussing my projects, people use terms like ‘minimalism’ and ‘purity’, which are incorrect. The work is essential, and the results are rooted in that essentiality.

Speaking as both artist and architect, what are your thoughts on contemporary China?

AW: Currently China is at a stage I would call the most extreme condition that humans can experience. Culturally, though, this condition is like a desert absolutely lacking in new philosophies, new morals, new aesthetics – all the aspects that should accompany the kind of activities taking place. It’s a sad story and one I often talk about, but nobody else seems to be discussing these matters. And that’s disturbing. Chinese architects are simply blind or mentally retarded in some way. They don’t realize they’re living at a unique time in history. There is no intellectual discussion, no meaningful practice. I wrote a few articles on how architects should change and be more conscious of what they’re doing, urging them to make work that addresses the current state of affairs – to consider density, speed, scale and unfamiliar building regulations. Only then can a meaningful new architecture be realized. It’s wrong to make an incorrect analysis of Western architecture or to simply copy Western buildings.

I jumped on the wrong train | An interview with Ai Weiwei, Mark Magazine 12, January-February 2008

The National Stadium is one of the highlights of both the Olympic Games and Beijing’s urban transformation. Unavoidably the building has a form . . .

AW: [laughs] The right word is ‘unfortunately’.

The discussion surrounding this structure focuses on its value as a symbol – as an icon. What do you see when you look at the stadium?

AW: At the moment, the people of China are unable to comprehend this building, even those who use it. It’s too far beyond their understanding, and that’s not a snobbish remark. Although an ambitious project like this one had to be realized in Beijing, the city’s naïve officials, who have no knowledge of architecture or stadiums – not to mention a showcase type of architecture – had to commission international architects for the project. This stadium is more than a showcase, however. As architecture, the building is top quality, and it can continue to be used for huge events. Initially it drew criticism from every corner of the architectural world. A barrage of experts were against it, citing reasons of safety, foreign occupancy, colonialism. It was a highly sensitive subject. Had it not been the Olympic Stadium, the structure would never have been built. Ultimately, the budget was cut and the retractable roof eliminated, but the result is very satisfying. We wanted to design a democratic form. If you look at the building from different angles, you see a uniformity in which one side doesn’t dominate the others. From the outside, it’s not clear where the entrance is. You have the freedom to ‘float’ into the building. Inside, the space is not clearly structured but rather chaotic. It lacks obvious reference points. At the same time, you don’t feel as though you’re on the wrong side or in a corner with a poor view. By maximizing the view for everybody, the architects have raised gamewatching to its highest level. What a pity that no one mentions these qualities. At the moment, the overall image is all that counts.

Red Brick Art Galleries | July, 2010

The Template structure displayed at Documenta collapsed after a couple of days. Was it the engineer’s fault?

AW: There was no engineer involved. I am fully responsible. I designed Template to be erected indoors, where it would never fall down. At the last minute I was asked to contribute another piece for Documenta. I hadn’t done any research on the weather in Germany. When the structure collapsed, I realized it was okay. The structure changed form, but preserving its original shape was not crucial. Displaying the collapsed structure was a good decision and perhaps worked even better than my initial idea. When nature entered the picture, people found themselves discussing the process and the life span of art, including possible changes and unpredictable conditions.

What has happened to Template?

AW: After the collapse, we asked engineers at Kassel University to make a complete calculation of the measurements. We’re thinking about the possibilities of removing and rebuilding the structure in its present condition. It’s more interesting than it was. I think of it as dealing with change and remaking a miracle – the same shit but in a different form.

I jumped on the wrong train | An interview with Ai Weiwei, Mark Magazine 12, January-February 2008

The dialogue between past and present is part of your art. Isn’t it awkward to put the same sort of dialogue into architecture?

AW: The windows of the Template structure come from old towns and villages in Northern China that have been destroyed. Such windows are sold in marketplaces as decorative items. They came from ruins, and we made something out of them. When history appears in art, as a material used for construction, it holds not only memory, but also knowledge, reflecting the conditions of the time. Using historical materials allows me to show the contradictions and conflicts of the current condition. It comes naturally to me when I’m making art. New and old should be integrated more often in architecture; the combination makes sites and cities more interesting. This is not what is happening in today’s China, however, where government policy can lead to the overnight eradication of entire areas. Such brutality and violence goes beyond buildings, ignoring residents, citizens, memories, traditions, the past. It shows the kind of society we’re living in.

The Jinhua Architecture Park – a landscaped urban area already featured in several publications – was a project for which you commissioned several young architecture firms, both Chinese and European, to design 17 pavilions. What is the current state of affairs?

AW: The architecture park just opened. The original brief asked for the design of a memorial for my father. The question in my mind was: Why should I, of all people, create this memorial? But leaving the job to someone else might have produced a poorer result, of course.

Did that thought motivate your decision?

AW: Yes. If you don’t do it, you can’t tell people to do it differently. If you do it, people will surely understand your point of view – it might be the wrong point of view, but it will be clearly understood.

I jumped on the wrong train | An interview with Ai Weiwei, Mark Magazine 12, January-February 2008

How does the design process work at your office?

AW: I work with a group of about ten young architects from all over the world. We discuss concepts and I make drawings. I have a great sense of proportion. Even at the construction site, when I tell workers their lines are not straight and they challenge me by making their own measurements, they have to agree I’m right.

Are straight lines important?

AW: To me they are. I don’t like curves, except on the human body. I like Le Corbusier’s statement that the donkey likes the curved line, but humans like the straight line.

But the stadium is curved, isn’t it?

AW: That’s true. I never thought about that. But it’s a necessary curve and not one based on an aesthetic preference.

Do you think contemporary Chinese architecture is contributing to the world and to the profession?

AW: Chinese architects are blindly building everything without the aid of clear judgment – if that’s a contribution, I concede that it’s being made. It’s a case to be studied.

Is architecture in your plans for the future?

AW: No. I won’t be doing any more architecture. But I do have a few projects to complete. Then it’s over. Done.

You’re retiring as an architect?

AW: I never started. I just hopped on the wrong train by mistake. I don’t care where it’s going or where it stops. I have to get off.

– – –
Ai Weiwei interviewed by Bert de Muynck. Pictures by Mónica Carriço.
Beijing, China | October 11, 2007
Published in Mark Magazine #12 | February-March 2008.

Other publications in MARK Magazine: A Letter From Beijing (CN) | Published in MARK Magazine #09 (August-September, 07)

Projects by Ai Weiwei: ORDOS100 – 100 international architects design each one villa of 1,000 square meters in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China, text by Bert de Muynck
Jinhua Architecture Park Opening – 17 chinese and international architects design each one pavillion in Jinhua, China, text by Bert de Muynck

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