Compared with Ai’s often astonishing auction prices (his series of gold-plated bronze animal heads went for $4.3m at auction in 2015), the $5.25m tag on his 2008-built house in Columbia County, New York state, sounds like a bargain.
Ai is not an architect, but this appears to be a pretty good house. That the Chinese artist’s partners in the design were Swiss architects HFF shows through in the cool detailing, shimmering corrugated metal and slick finishes. But this was far from the first building Ai has designed.
He was co-designer, with another firm of Swiss architects, Herzog & De Meuron, of the admired Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games. The arena became known as the “Bird’s Nest” because of its complex structure.
He also built a studio and an artists’ community at Caochangdi in Beijing using local craft techniques and materials to create an intriguing urban complex of grey and red brick blocks and cobbled streets.
In Inner Mongolia he masterplanned the Ordos 100 development of international architect-designed homes, which remains incomplete.
Ai built his own studio in Beijing, repurposing an old industrial building, but it was demolished by the Chinese authorities without warning last year. He also had to shut down and abandon his design practice, the wryly named Fake Cultural Development, after it was accused by the authorities of tax evasion. Ai, who lost an appeal against a $2.4m tax fine, has suggested it was levied in retribution for his political activities.
So Ai is no dabbler; he has a record of good buildings, a few failed ventures and a legacy that has been treated punitively in China because of his criticism of the country’s government.
But back to the house in New York state: is it art? It was commissioned by and built for art collector Christopher Tsai (apparently the foremost collector of Ai’s work) and is clearly conscious of the crossover between art and architecture, collecting and dwelling.
It is a handsome building but with the all trappings of an upscale New York state property — a minimal concrete pool, exposed fireplace, Boffi kitchen, separate curving guesthouse and expansive views of the surrounding countryside. It evokes, a little, the work of Louis Kahn tempered with contemporary Swiss precision.
Ai is far from the first artist to design buildings, of course. During the Renaissance, the line between architecture, art and sculpture was almost invisible and, in the modern age, Salvador Dalí designed his own place, Donald Judd designed some superb spaces and Olafur Eliasson has built up a large architecture studio. Grayson Perry, working with Charles Holland at FAT Architecture, designed the wonderfully eccentric House for Essex.
You might argue that a house designed by an artist whose works sell for millions has its value hugely enhanced by its status. Or that a house, which has to serve a functional purpose, is something that exists outside the rarefied world of art. But is art not now an asset class of its own? Is it not a trophy of the same kind as a country house or a fourth or fifth home?
There is a curious situation in which homes designed by famous architects are often worth less than those by more mundane or unknown names. The reason is that they might be unchangeable, that their listing or protected status fixes them in a particular form and, as fashions change, those properties are unable to change with them. Houses by Frank Lloyd Wright or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe now look ridiculously small to modern buyers, have little in the way of air-con or pools and always have too few bathrooms.
Yet here is a house by an artist who is clearly a skilful designer and careful thinker, an artist who cares about making and meaning. It has 37 acres of land, overlooks the Catskill mountains, has one bathroom for each of its three bedrooms and a pretty cool pool.
However, it also seems at odds with his art. Ai’s installations are now almost exclusively about the terrible human costs of migration. Yet here we are in a luxurious minimal mansion in upstate New York, far from the borders and crossing points, the refugee camps and the overcrowded dinghies. Is it art? And does it matter?
Photographs: Iwan Baan; Nikolas Koenig; Dreamstime; Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images; Dan Kitwood/Getty Images