Pandas: A Rehearsal

Keller Easterling

is an architect and writer from New York City. She is the author of Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades (MIT, 2005) and Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways and Houses in America (1999). A forthcoming book, Extrastatecraft, examines global infrastructure networks as a medium of polity.

The first invitation to join the ORDOS 100 went unanswered because a polite regret did not come to mind. The eager architect designing big villas in China has been, for me, the subject of some sport. A cheerful reminder that I had missed the deadline came as I was preparing a seminar about expanded repertoires of activism.[1] Assuming that righteous endgames might present activism’s biggest restriction, the seminar looked past the symmetrical face-offs of resistance with their classic political pedigree to a dissensus that might be less self-congratulatory, less automatically oppositional, but more effective (and sneakier). Binary conflicts on battlegrounds, borders, and barricades shape our histories and habits of mind, sometimes lending them the very righteous violence we intend to dissipate. What would happen if one turned 90 degrees just before the finish line or kept pacing away from one’s opponent in the duel, striding purposefully into a vast pasture of unorthodox techniques in situations not precast with enemies and innocents? In Milan Kundera’s The Joke, when the prisoners are challenged to a race against the camp guards, they disarm the sprinting guards by running very slowly—by deploying a form of exaggerated compliance.

China’s gift of two pandas (both named Unity) to Taiwan, was designed as a steamroller of sweetness and cuteness—the handshake as half nelson. The seminar naturally looked to stories like these and to a number of characters from pirates to princes to prisoners to comedians—Kundera, Michael K., Chauncey Gardiner, or Ai Weiwei—who successfully leverage power with slippery forms of dissent or misdirection. I realized that I might try to impress my students by deputizing myself as the seminar’s own guinea pig, or panda, a pale academic panda, wandering into the very pastures in which we wished to rehearse. With their usual grace, the students allowed me my fiction, since one would have to be rather self-aggrandizing to find in this relatively benign situation enough controversy for an ethical struggle of any scale. Nor did they point out the cowardly insulation I enjoyed by being on a list with some of the world’s most politically and culturally astute young architects.

Photo: James Elaine.
Photo: James Elaine.

Ai Weiwei’s organization, FAKE, printed “Be Yourself” on the napkins at the Ordos Holiday Inn where the architects were sequestered for five days. The napkins and camera crews would suggest that 100 architects designing 100 villas were, like the 1001 Chinese workers in Ai Weiwei’s Documenta project, players in a larger performance piece. While I support the idea of using architects as subjects in examinations of behavior, Ai Weiwei might have cast the wrong straw man. Surprisingly, the assumptions about what architects were and what they could do was not so hip. A project that most might regard as a revival of 20th-century international housing demonstrations, familiar suburbs, or 80s mannerism, Ai Weiwei seemed to regard as a thoroughly original exposé of architecture at the vanguard of new disciplinary habits. “From the start,” the artist instructed, “this should be a star project, because in our human history, nobody has done anything like it. Architects are so educated, so concerned about protecting their knowledge, so attached to personal creativity rather than communicating and fighting and getting themselves into new circumstances and using their basic, original strength, their courage. Whenever you set up a condition questioning normal behavior, it’s always interesting.”[2] For Ai Weiwei, Ordos would be a stage for toying with the egos of architects and asserting himself as a better designer—one who had none of the attributes of the preening careerist or the turgid academic.

As the days went on in Ordos, the reminder that we had bitten on the hook and should be grateful for the chance to express ourselves was reinforced with shots of Mongolian moonshine and meals in a yurt-shaped Genghis Khan dinner theater. Fairy tales often accompany control. Power needs fictions and obfuscations that avoid any reckoning. One was forced to smile and nod in a situation constantly oscillating between acceptable and unacceptable conditions. Was the Paleo-Genghis new town of Ordos and its art neighborhood part of a macro-ecological experiment in preventing desertification, or was it another fortification of an autonomous region? Did it really mean something in this context to be allowed to be oneself? Was it not important simply to be part of an international network of colleagues? Should one refuse to work as if one’s own soul or nation was somehow more pure? Was Ai Weiwei, now an authority figure rather than a critic, delivering a version of the “pretend smile” against which he protested in his withdrawal from the Olympics? Do refusals and self-regard enjoy a closer relationship than they should?

Still, the number 100 seemed interesting as a multiplier. Unlike the 1001 workers in Kassel, maybe a sympathetic group of 100 architects could upset the choreography by multiplying some intention that would tip the laughably dated zoo of villas toward other experiments. Could we not all turn in the same house to critique the homogeneity of the surrounding new town, or alternatively spread some invisible programmatic contagion through the population of villas without losing our precious option to express ourselves with building envelope?

A conference room at the Ordos Holiday Inn had been set up as a U.N., of sorts, for the international congress of architects. When the idea of such an epidemic was broached in this gathering, the architects returned to default forms of togetherness—utopian manifestos or charters of consensus that deadened any potentially productive epidemic with monism or righteousness. Most of the sentiments of U.N. architects involved green innovations, which the EU architects characterized as a laughable form of contrition. The discussion was laced with a little competition between conflicting formal camps. All in all, it fell neatly into the trap that had been set for clichéd architects.

But two can play at the game of fairy tales and pretend smiles. The project I presented gambled with a cocktail of pandas, compliance, and comedy to create a special “gift” of praise. With exaggerated compliance, the project congratulates the organizers for having an idea they never had. It notes the genius of camouflaging a place for independent voices within a banal suburban development—one even further disguised as a 1980s anachronism. The project proposes a micro-institution posing as a villa, suited to an arid climate and wrapped up as a chirpy, adorable, arm-twisting Panda.

With the “Be Yourself” napkin pinned over my heart for the final presentation, I thanked everyone for this journey of self-discovery. I noted the genius of the client to request big villas: what a clever ruse to use the symbol of class and exclusivity to protect cultural diversity within domesticity. Equally artful was the request for a home entertainment center for the villa. “Home entertainment” must be code for art venues in an otherwise absurdly vacuous new town. Moreover, the villa was so big that it could serve as a micro-institution in an art colony with its own capacity for openings, shows, and parties (e.g., Black Mountain or Yaddo). (Enclaves are sometimes built to exclude and sometimes built to protect the thing that is excluded. I was already convinced that Ordos, with its museum and studio buildings, represented the latter case.) With further praise, the project hinted at the foresight of planning big villas in a desert previously fueled by coal! “Like the rare Mongolian Antelope who stores fat in unlikely places,” the presentation bluffed, the villa’s adaptation to an arid climate would thus be a much more important demonstration of new, highly politicized global fuel alignments. Like a magician’s box, the project’s concentric arrangement facilitated public-private separations and “trap doors” within the house while also creating insulating layers for experiments with passive heating and cooling. In a bait and switch, only sweetened by current criticism of China, the project also ladled on some enthusiasm for the Olympics. The villa wisely called for a swimming pool, and fortunately it was big enough for a 25-meter Olympic training pool within which a young athlete might train outside the state system. Since most of China’s Olympic swimmers are girls, the presentation noted the feminist intentions of the organizers. Within the concentric layers, special boxes, all of equal size, then might house guests and workers or artists and athletes in residence. Finally the presentation praised the owners of these villas, who were cool enough to want to share their house, not just to “be themselves” but also to “alter themselves.”

The project is, like any project with impure thoughts, messy and partly wrong, and its rehearsal of techniques is less important than tripping the lock on potentially paralyzing restrictions to activism when there is so much to do. These techniques were also intended for situations of much more controversy and consequence than Ordos. Still, a rehearsal can open a door. One can rehearse the addictive pleasure and relief of deploying political craft in the service of something other than careerism or righteous certainty. The repertoire is inclusive of, in league with, and in excess of withdrawal (which always remains a possibility). Every global player is trying to see what the world can be taken for. I thought I should extend my (pale, academic) hand in another arm-twisting handshake—to raise the stakes or leverage a chance to do more.


1. Architecture and Activism, Yale School of Architecture, Spring 2008.
2. Quoted by Alex Pasternak in “Dawn of a New Century: Ordos 100,”

Project Credits

Keller Easterling, Fred Scharmen, R. Gerard Pietrusko, Andy Lucia, Matt Lake, Vivian Chin.


Go back to 8: RE