Ai Weiwei on Falling in Love with the Possibilities Architecture
In Conversation with Amale Andraos and Carol Becker
I first met Ai Weiwei in the city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia in China. Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron had invited one hundred young architects from around the world to each propose a villa for a residential development within this new Chinese city.
Though the villas were never built, Ordos 100 represents a network of lifelong friendships and collaborations that are single-handedly upending canonical narratives about architecture, decentering its European hegemony, and most important, searching for ways to engage the potential and challenges that global urbanization, migration, real estate development, and climate change present. These opportunities and challenges crystallized for many of us in Ordos with great intensity and urgency.
Ai Weiwei spoke with me and Carol Becker, Dean of Columbia School of the Arts, at an event at Columbia University in 2017. Preparing for the conversation was no small feat, so I was delighted that Carol Becker, dean of the School of the Arts, agreed to share the stage with us that evening. Diving together into Ai Weiwei’s more recent work gave us some precious time to connect a flurry of thoughts and to share old and new experiences.
This is maybe how the encounter with Ai Weiwei’s work happens: Whether experienced directly or through media, a constant unfolding, layering, and expansion occurs. You see the piece, always beautiful and beautifully crafted, then you realize its scale—whether literally, in terms of its physical presence, or as a result of the narratives around it, such as the labor it took to make it, the stories embedded in the materials it is made of, the references it brings to life, the disconnected threads it draws together, the mediatic scaling up from smartphone to smartphone, courageously, provocatively, and generously blurring intensely and often violently lived moments with their instant broadcast.
Ai Weiwei’s work is bound to touch all of us. It is at once deeply personal and able to reach across differences in time, space, experience, and knowledge to render whatever is left of our shared humanity viscerally tangible and present, opening up within the thick walls of his own beautiful buildings small yet powerful windows, frames to look out and imagine a different world but also to look in, to transform ourselves and our gaze. Ai Weiwei’s work is a constant register of our times. It makes visible what we refuse to see, or invites us to consider what we think we know differently.
It appropriates everyday objects and materials and transforms them across mediums with great intensity of labor and care. As new juxtapositions converge, new aesthetic experiences are created, new meanings are produced, and new associations are made possible; old boundaries are erased, walls crumble, and limits are recast. It is not only the work that expands and is expansive; it is also the person and his practice—more than an artist, more than an architect, more than a writer, a filmmaker, or an activist. Ai Weiwei’s expanded practice is opening up for all of us new possibilities for knowledge, for engagement, and for action.
Carol Becker: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is an incredible project that tries to bring the stories of immigrants and refugees right into the heart of the city. You are coming back to New York with memories of what Washington Square Park was like when you were first here. I wanted to start by hearing about your experiences then and about how it feels to return to this city now.“You tell people you’re an artist, people will not even ask you the second question. It’s not polite to ask somebody who’s already said he’s an artist.”
Ai Weiwei: Thank you for the very long introduction you gave me. I always think, is that really me? I am very happy to have a chance to be with you. I practice architecture and art, and as you see, I’m in love with both practices. It’s about having a fantasy and the skill to have rational practical thinking. Also, it is very important to make things happen and to add something to our life. For Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, it happened a few years ago when the Public Art Fund invited me to do a project.
First, I was hesitant. I thought, New York City is such a beautiful city, and it doesn’t really need public art. Very often I see something there and always think, “Oh, it’s too much, it shouldn’t be there.” But nevertheless, I ended up having a project in the city. I spent about ten years here, between 1982 and 1993. During that time, I was a student just like most of you here. I considered myself a student, but I actually only studied for about a year, or less than a year.
CB: Don’t tell our students that.
AW: I dropped out of Parsons. It’s a nice school but very expensive, and it was like a kindergarten for me. I came from a communist society, and my parents couldn’t support me. I never told them how expensive it was. It would have given them a heart attack. It was not possible for them to understand tuition. Here you have to pay so much, and I still don’t understand it. In many countries you don’t have to pay, but why does this country have you pay? I guess some kind of magic psychological thing will be set up with young people. They’re conscious about money and later have to make money to pay back all those things. I never understood all this because I never finished school. I just dropped out. By dropping out, I became an illegal person in New York, but that wasn’t a problem. A lot of illegal aliens live here. It didn’t make me feel bad. I felt liberated because I wasn’t part of this capitalist machine.
CB: You could drop out because you still were able to continue as an artist without those structures.
AW: You can always call yourself an artist if you drop out.
CB: Right. But architects …
AW: You tell people you’re an artist, people will not even ask you the second question. It’s not polite to ask somebody who’s already said he’s an artist. I spent about ten years wandering around and pretending to go to all those galleries and museums and standing in front of paintings for like maybe ten minutes without knowing what they were. I cannot understand it, but this wall is so beautiful, the lighting is amazing, but why do they hang this art here? I have no idea. When you’re 24, you really think the world is so profound, and there’s no possibility to really penetrate our assumptions.
Let’s talk about this project. Public Art Fund invited me to do this, and it was a bit difficult because I love the city but I didn’t want to make a sculpture in the city. I have concerns about borders, territory, and immigration, and then I got the opportunity to make something about current issues. I think it’s interesting to do something with architecture. An idea with fences, in relation to building facades or objects that are ready-made with their own history, could work well in the city.
Our parents are all immigrants to this city, as refugees or otherwise, so it wasn’t a difficult matter to discuss this idea. Public Art Fund liked this concept, so we started to work. I decided to work on many layers, from a bus stop to subway posters to light banners.
CB: Laser-cut banners.
AW: Yes. Laser-cut is the technique we used, and we made faces from prominent refugees like Kandinsky and Einstein, poets, musicians, and also images I took in refugee camps.
Amale Andraos: What you’re seeing here is one of them in the arch at Washington Square Park. Carol and I were there, and we were saying it was already very beautiful; as the light went through, you could read the gate in various ways with these cutouts.
CB: You can walk through the figures.
AW: Yes, because I am an architect.
AA: It’s clear, yes.
AW: It’s clear, and it’s easy for me to make this. If anything goes wrong with architecture, I can tell them: I’m an artist. I have really profited by doing both architecture and art.
CB: I was particularly struck by the gates you put up at Cooper Union. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, Cooper Union was the place where immigrants who wanted to study art, architecture, or engineering got to go to school for free. It was designed for the immigrant populations of New York.
CB: It was Peter Cooper’s vision that it would be a school for people who would never get to go to school because he never got to go to school. So he built Cooper Union with that idea that it would be a school immigrants could attend. It was always the most open place, and I thought it was very interesting to see a very different kind of fence being installed at Cooper Union, as if that possibility no longer exists. You really have to think about what Cooper Union has been and relook at it with this notion that you can’t get in with the gates up now, since it has always been the school that you could go to and you could go to for free.
AW: I like Cooper Union only for the reason I heard they used to have a very tough architecture program. By the second year, if you’re not good, the professor could just destroy your models and say, “Get out of here.” Somehow I liked that, and I thought this must be a good school.
AA: We don’t do that anymore.
AW: I’m teaching art in Berlin now. I have to be very courteous to my students because they’re more like professors, and if you push too hard they start to cry. What is happening to students today? They say, “Oh, you know, students are very liberal.” I looked in the dictionary and liberal doesn’t mean lazy, but they are really lazy, these students today. How can you meet a real challenge? Maybe there’s no challenge in later life? I think it’s very difficult for a professor to teach today because you cannot push too hard, and without pushing hard why would you become a professor? It’s tough.
CB: What do you think students, in both art and architecture, need to know to go into this world, the way it is now?
AW: First, I think the whole education system is unbelievably long. Some students at 25 or in their thirties are still trying to get a degree, and I think you spend the best years of your life in school. There are better places to learn than in a school. Even a school in Manhattan does not offer enough information for young people to structure knowledge around what real life is all about. I think that teaching is for me, but schooling is too long.
AA: I think this is one of the things that we talk about a lot, actually, within the school of the arts and the school of architecture. Today, I think architects and artists need to work across disciplines and in many different mediums. It’s not so linear anymore. It’s something that we try to teach. You’re right that you have to engage with life.
AW: It’s as though life has become slow motion. When you’re in school, it is so different from real life. My situation, of course, may not be a good example. I never learned architecture and I never learned filmmaking, but it does not take so long to learn those things—maybe three months or something. Architecture and filmmaking are somehow related. Filmmaking is very much like architecture, where everything’s predesigned. You’re collaborating, because you have a cameraman, lighting, makeup person, actor, and actresses—all predesigned—and architecture also works this way. I think if you’re an architect already, you should be a filmmaker at the same time.
AA: One part that I think is really interesting regarding your crossover as an artist and an architect is how you deal with the question of scale and the individual. We had a fantastic lecture last week at GSAPP by Rosanne Haggerty, who’s developing housing for homeless people. She found out, after a number of years, that the only way to start opening up that problem is actually to know the name of every person who is homeless. It’s the specificity of the narrative and the granular scale that can allow us to deal with larger-scale issues. In your work, it’s always the singular part that makes up these very large-scale projects. As architects, we still struggle to make those bridges, right? I mean, we’re building these huge cities that often lack humanity.
AW: Exactly! You might know the measurements, the proportions, and how people use it, but if it’s lacking humanity, then nothing’s going to work. That’s the problem with architecture education. You have a lot of people who understand those physical qualities, rather than understanding human life. If you talk about refugees, they have been through war zones and famine. When they come to Europe, all they need is some attention paid to them rather than being put in camps or waiting for policy to design their future. Give them some recognition as human beings. They’re people with strong dignity, and they’re also quite proud, and to take the chance of going through this journey is extremely difficult. I see many of them in Europe; even after they are accepted, people still look at them very differently. This is not only unpleasant but also very dangerous because you’re really going to push away those people by saying they’re very different.
CB: These images are of the work you made from the life jackets saved from Lesbos after Syrian refugees arrived. When I first saw these pieces, I thought, only an artist would think this way.
CB: All these abandoned life preservers are here used to communicate as both image and metaphor. To Amale’s point, you have tried to keep to the particularity, to the specificity, to try to make the enormity of the refugee situation real to people. I think you’ve struggled to find a form and made so many different pieces about this issue, all trying to get at its scale but also keep the humanity of its breadth intact. Is Human Flow in some way a resolution for you? Being able to bring together all the elements that need to be talked about?
AW: Well, those projects did just pop into my mind like in a second. When you look at a building from the Renaissance, you know it carries all kinds of meanings. Why are those things designed like that, and why does it dominate our understanding about a building? We have this culture of conflicts—religious conflicts and aesthetic conflicts. If I can call something ugly, I would say those life jackets are very ugly. I usually don’t use that word, but you know, because so many people drowned in this ocean, because many of the jackets were fake and didn’t float. How can you illustrate all those feelings? It’s very hard. You’re not decorating life, but you are instead saying, “Hey, this is it.” I feel quite ashamed when I look at those images because it says so much about today’s humanity, with no solution in sight for those people.
AA: One of the things that I know from our students is that they want to find a new way to engage. I do think that this is an interesting time. If I think about the past decades in architectural education, there was a division between form and content, especially in America, and between meaning and medium. It was frowned upon if you brought a political or activist narrative to architectural practice. And yet of course architecture is completely embedded in power, right? How do architects and artists find a way to engage?
AW: I became an architect because of one incident. I moved back to China in 1993 after being in the United States for twelve years. I tried to be a good boy and spend more time with my mom after my father passed away. Basically, I had nothing to do as someone coming back from New York. I still had that liberal tradition in me and felt very comfortable doing nothing and just staying home. My mom is a typical Chinese, and she’s always been proud of me because I was always good at school. She never understood why I came back and never graduated, never got a diploma or had many things. I didn’t even have an American green card or passport. One day she got angry and said I needed to move out. I thought this would give me an opportunity to build a house of my own.
At that time, to build a house was quite cheap, and the building you are seeing here was made from a simple drawing.
It took about thirty days to build it. It cost about $30,000; that’s less than one year’s tuition at your school. It is really beautiful inside, and I tried to make just one window and one door. It’s like a child making a little building, but inside it’s much better looking with very nice lighting. It became a model in China because at that time all the developers were trying to copy the Western style. The style they were doing was more like from the Renaissance time because I think architects can ask for more money by doing those designs. If you made a drawing like this, maybe they would kick you out and say, “What is this drawing?”
So I started to build for many people and had about sixty projects. Later I quit because I had had enough of it.
So if you want to be an architect, first you have to be kicked out by your mom. You either become homeless or you build something.
Excerpted from Conversations. Copyright (c) 2021 Ai Weiwei. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.