Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous contemporary artist, has had many forays into architecture over the course of his career. In one of his most ambitious projects, he redesigned Beijing’s National Stadium into a Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in China. Before that, he worked with 15 architect firms on designing 17 pavilions for the Jinhua Architecture Park (2002-2006). These days, a lesser-known architectural jewel of Ai’s making is dominating newspaper headlines: the Tsai Residence in Ancram, New York, the only private residence the artist designed in the United States, is up for grabs for $5.25 million.
The Tsai Residence was commissioned in 2006 as a vacation retreat for Chinese-American businessman Christopher Tsai, a known collector of Ai’s works. In collaboration with HHF Architects in Switzerland, one the firms the artist commissioned for the Jinhua Architecture Park project, Ai designed two structures on the 37.5-acre property: a cube-like, corrugated metal-clad main house (3,700 square feet) and a Y-shaped guest house with a timber structure and corrugated steel facade with a rusted patina.
Located in the Hudson Valley, the home is about two hours upstate of New York City. The residence has already changed ownership in the past when it sold for $4.25 million in 2013. It is now priced for $1,496 per square foot.
“This is livable art,” says listing agent Graham Klemm, “But it’s still very livable and practical and everything a luxury homeowner would want.” The main house consists of 3 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. Its minimal interior begins with a double-height hallway, which leads into a great room. A floor-to-ceiling gray brick chimney welcomes visitors at the entrance. Outside, a decked rectangular pool is set against a panoramic view of the Catskill Mountains.
The guesthouse, which was added in 2009, includes two living and sleeping spaces at both ends of its Y-shaped arms, a kitchenette, and a small gallery space. The guesthouse is lined with wood instead of metal, which blends it more naturally in the green tree-lined grounds.
Ai’s first architectural project was designing his own studio in Beijing in 1999 after founding his architecture firm FAKE Design. Later in 2011, when he expanded to a new studio of his design, the Chinese authorities tore down the building, claiming the artist had no construction permit.
In 2007, while Ai was still on good terms with the Chinese government, he designed the Three Shadows Photography Center, a nonprofit institution in Cao Chang Di, China. The gray brick complex includes living spaces, studios, labs, and galleries. Gray brick is a recurring motif in Ai’s design, seen also in his project Courtyard 105 at the Caochangdi village in the suburbs of Bejing.
In 2011, in collaboration with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron, Ai Weiwei invited 100 architects from around the world to design 100 villas for a new housing project in Ordos, Mongolia. The project, however, flopped and the city remains abandoned until today.
A year later, in 2012, Ai teamed up with Herzog and de Meuron again to design the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London. The temporary summer pavilion took visitors underneath a floating platform roof placed at the gallery’s lawn.
Most recently, in 2017, Ai worked with the Swiss architecture firm on a commission for the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. His installation “Hanzel and Gretel” at the Armory’s massive Drill Hall probed issues of technological surveillance and the invasion of privacy with buzzing drones flying over a gridded flashing floor, among other technological stunts and effects.
In the latest chapter in his series of clashes with the Chinese government, Beijing authorities have once again demolished a studio belonging to Ai Weiwei without warning. “Today, they started to demolish my studio ‘zuo you’ in Beijing with no precaution, which I have as my main studio since 2006,” the artist wrote in an Instagram post showing a video of the demolition on August 3, 2018, “It is a[n] East German style socialist factory building. Farewell.”