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Out with the old: a photo essay by Ai Weiwei

China's architecture has transformed over the past decade, but at what cost?

In the past ten years, China's urban landscape has changed beyond all recognition. Construction programmes across the country have ensured the mass production not only of buildings, mall and homes, but of whole new cities. The development shows no signs of slowing: the government has announced that it plans to build 20 cities a year for the next 20 years.

Since 1949, all the land in China has belonged to the state. As the country's economy opened itself up to the world, demolition and development was allowed to occur at an unprecedented pae. China's old towns and cities have been reimagined - villages have been eradicated to make way for shopping centres, and skyscrapers have replaced the traditional hutong buildings. Centuries-old architectures and the cultural heritage of a nation have been erased from the civic space.

Between 2003 and 2007, Ai Weiwei took a series of photographs entitles Provisional Landscapes. He traveled through Shanghai, Beijing, and the Dongbei region and other locations to study the disappearance of the county he once knew, and the emergence of a new China. A selection of these previously unpublished images was reproduced in his guest edit issue of the New Statesman. In addition, exclusively for the edition, Ai returned to some of the same places and rephotographed the sites he captured on film nearly ten years ago. These pictures are paired, where appropriate, with those from the original series. As the two sets of images show, China's transformation over a decade has been one of the most rapid and comprehensive in history. Yet a question remains: can a country every completely erase its past?


(Then: Shenyang, 2005)

(Then: Chaoyang park, Palm Springs Compound, Beijing, 2005)

(Now: The same location in 2012)


(Then: Wukesong, Beijing, 2003)

(Then: Shanghai, 2007)

(Then: Shanghai, 2007)


(Then: Dawang Lu, Beijing, 2003)

(Now: The same location in 2012)


(Then: Huajiadi Compound, Taiyanggong, Beijing, 2006)

(Now: The same location in 2012)

[All photography by Ai Weiwei]

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit