In the last several years, Ai has become a larger-than-life figure for his role as an activist, celebrity, political critic, victim, and all-around Chinese Communist Party irritant. The exhibition and the essays that accompany it rightfully acknowledge Ai’s role in the social discourse of China, but focus a critical lens on the artist’s work. This body of projects ranges from his early collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron on the Beijing Olympic Stadium to the Jindong New Development Area (an urban planning project that includes a series of pavilions designed by different architects), to a home that Ai designed in upstate New York with the Swiss firm HHF.
In the essays, Ai comes across as China’s sharpest architecture critic, albeit a bit grumpy. “I don’t like Beijing,” he is quoted as saying. “It is not fit for human inhabitation.” Adding later, “I feel hopeless about architecture in China.” All of this blunt commentary culminates in Ai’s argument for a kind of “ordinary” architecture, one that would have a greater impact on China’s rapidly growing urban landscape than the architectural spectacles favored by developers and corporations. In fact, this argument is the most powerful idea in Ai’s collective work, and shows that his moral compass is aimed in the right direction.