Ai Weiwei’s alternative vision for Beijing’s buildings

Published 18 September 2015

With a display on Beijing’s Caochangdi in our Architecture Space, our curator discusses the Ai Weiwei-designed buildings of this artists’ region, and their place in a rapidly developing city.

  • From the Autumn 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    With China claiming 14 cities with populations over 5 million, the scale of its development is almost unfathomable. One of China’s main tourist websites states: “Feel the buzz of urbanization in the fastest developing country in the history of the planet.” The size and speed of change is alluring, but can be disconcerting.

    On my first visit almost a decade ago, Beijing was one great building site, amplified by the approaching Olympic Games. All about there were cranes in the sky, heralding the future. It was also a time when the hutongs – historic neighbourhoods of narrow alleyways and streets – were being razed to the ground, demolishing entire communities overnight in the drive to modernise. Buildings of all shapes and sizes were emerging, which looked spectacular, but often contributed little more than a novel form to the skyline.

    On my trip to Beijing this year, I spent an afternoon walking through Caochangdi, where Ai Weiwei built his studio in 1999. At that time it was a village on the outskirts of Beijing, but was soon to be engulfed as the city grew. Ai designed many of the galleries, studios and houses in Caochangdi (above), using local building skills and materials.

  • I was struck by the complexity and the simple beauty of Ai’s buildings in Caochangdi.

  • Ai’s engagement with architecture can be traced not to formal study, but to personal experience. When he was a child, his family were exiled to Xinjiang, where their home was a small underground pit. Even then, Ai understood the importance of space – he dug deeper into the earthen floor to get better head-height and learnt how to bring in natural light.

    I was struck by the complexity and the simple beauty of Ai’s buildings in Caochangdi. Walls surround both open and enclosed spaces, which expand or contract, offering different voids and vistas. Natural light is brought in from above or the side to create different atmospheres. Each building has a modest and human scale, but also a powerful presence that makes it compelling and memorable.

    Caochangdi’s growing reputation has drawn visitors from around the world. Its population of rural migrants and artists is also rapidly changing. In 2010 it was under threat of demolition – now there are more coffee shops, a sign of gentrification, and local residents fear they may not be able to afford to stay.

    This echoes what is happening across China – an economic shift from a reliance on the export industry to the internal consumer market fuelled by an urban elite. In 2013 the government announced plans to integrate 70 per cent of the country’s population – 900 million people – into city-living by 2025. The implications for the physical landscape and social structures of China are far-reaching.

    The scale of China’s ambition is reflected in its conception of a new mega-city that will cover 82,000 square miles and bring together Beijing, the port of Tianjin and the hinterlands of Hebei. Once complete, the mega-city will have a population of 130 million people.

    As I looked out of my hotel window across China’s capital, I could not quite reconcile the scale of the planned mega-city with Caochangdi. How could a meaningful built environment be created with a true sense of humanity given the scale and speed of development? Are architects given the chance to bring their spatial sensibilities to such projects, and can they really have any impact in such a fast-changing world?

    Caochangdi: The Studio and the Community is in the Architecture Space at the RA until 13 December 2015.
    Ai Weiwei is in the Main Galleries at the RA until 13 December 2015.

    Kate Goodwin is Head of Architecture and Drue Heinz Curator of Architecture at the RA.

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