As 798 grew established – and gentrified – rent prices soared, pushing artists out to villages on the peripheries of the city, the most architecturally and perhaps artistically significant of which is Caochangdi. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, the site was an elaborate imperial garden, but was transformed by Ai Weiwei when he moved to the area in 1999, designing not only his own studio but several complexes in the area.
The Three Shadows Photography Art Centre
is perhaps the most notable of his buildings with its unique facade of undulating grey brickwork based on the shadows of the nearby trees. Here, the walls function both as metaphor for the gallery theme – photography being the art of light and shadow – and perhaps also a caution: although bricks and mortar have more substance than the ephemerality of shadow, few buildings, especially in China, can stand the test of time.
Throughout Caochangdi, Ai Weiwei plays with surfaces. Walking through the spaces of the Red Brick compounds, their simple planes, narrow corridors opening into empty spaces, and blank featureless facades are akin to a Windows 98 screensaver or a de Chirico painting.
These buildings all set the tone for the wider architectural language of Caochangdi as Ai Weiwei's fame encouraged others to build in his style. These shanzhai, or copycat, structures can sometimes be hard to spot, often located right next door to the original, and have come to be known as ‘fake FAKEs’ after the artist’s own studio, FAKE Design. His contribution to the architecture of Caochangdi has earned the approval of international critics and, quietly, local developers alike.