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lisa rochon: cityspace

Members of the media walk on ceramic seeds, during the launch of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's "Sunflower Seeds" at the Tate Modern in south London, on October 11, 2010.LEON NEAL

"What could they do to me? Nothing more than banish, kidnap, or imprison me - perhaps they could fabricate my disappearance into thin air - but they don't have any creativity or imagination, and they lack both joy and the ability to fly."

- Blog posting by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, design architect of the Bird's Nest stadium, before being seized and incarcerated by Chinese police on April 3.

Try as they may, Chinese authorities cannot disappear Ai Weiwei. During the last two months - ever since the laconic, philosopher-artist, design architect and political activist was seized at a Beijing airport and stuffed away in an unknown location - images and videos of his elegiac work are being watched by a global audience more intensely than ever.

The Guggenheim Museum, the Andy Warhol Foundation and are circulating online petitions demanding Ai's release, calls being echoed by the Vancouver Art Gallery and New York's Museum of Modern Art. "Release Ai Weiwei" has been prominently printed across the light box topping the Tate Modern in London, while, inside, its Turbine Hall hosted 100 million handcrafted sunflower seeds tenderly painted with stripes of black and white, Ai's most recent, mind-altering installation.

Ai, now 54, wanted to prod China into a democracy where human rights and freedom of expression could flourish. His art and architecture were a means to that end.

Back in 2003, Ai was selected to collaborate with Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, architects of impeccable integrity and materials innovation, on the design of the 100,000-seat Beijing National Stadium. The challenge was to create a contemporary icon that looked grounded in Chinese culture while signalling a leap into the future. A curved lattice structure, requiring masses of steel girders, was woven together on an epic scale to create one of the enduring images of the 2008 Olympic Games.

When it came to understanding the power of architecture to rebrand an institution or, indeed, a communist country with a disturbing human-rights record, Chinese planning visionaries were as enlightened as any hip museum director. Ai was their ace to play on the world stage and, for a moment, there was the promise in the air that even the Czar of Dissent, to coin a phrase from Bob Dylan, was finally breathing fresh, authentic freedom.

In 2008, buoyed by the world's love affair with their Bird's Nest, the Basel-based Herzog & de Meuron gushed like blushing brides about their decision to engage with China. "Everybody knows what happens in China. All work conditions in China are not what you'd desire," said Jacques Herzog. "I believe that doing the stadium … will change radically and transform the society. Engagement is the best way of moving in the right direction."

Engagement, in fact, may have produced dire consequences. Herzog & de Meuron, meanwhile, have lost their long-time collaborator - officially being held for "economic crimes" - and remained reticent about his plight.

As Ai said in February during his TED Talk, part of the prestigious California-based lecture series, "freedom of speech and human rights are still in poor condition" in his country. An understatement, given that he was under house arrest, and his speech was delivered on a secretly transmitted video.

The deep irony of the Bird's Nest is that its architecture was so powerful it worked to blind many Western leaders to the reality of China on the ground. And, possibly, still does.

Ai knows the harsh truth. For speaking out about the violations of human rights in China, and for accusing contractors of building cheap schools that crumbled during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan (taking the lives of several thousand children), Ai's studio was put under camera surveillance and his phone was bugged. He researched the names of the deceased children, then suspended 9,000 backpacks in an installation in Munich, Germany. Back at home, he was hospitalized after being beaten. In 2009, his blog was banned in China.

Herzog & de Meuron were the creative minds behind the stunning renewal of the Tate Modern in 2000. But, with Ai they also worked at a small scale at the Venice Biennale and, in China, to create a meditative, open-air memorial for the artist's father, Ai Qing, a poet condemned to washing toilets during China's Cultural Revolution.

It's possible to find images of the three-storey brick studio that Ai designed and constructed in 2010, with its asymmetrical roofline and vast interior courtyard. A clip on his website, Never Sorry, shows Ai leading visitors through his Jiading-based studio, north of Shanghai's city centre, during its wintertime construction, and explaining how he got into architecture. "I thought of it as a simple task," he says. "I just drew a diagram and then built it. I certainly didn't think of it as architecture, but then everybody kept saying it was architecture, so I became an architect."

A few months ago, his freshly completed studio was demolished by government authorities.

That Ai is nowhere to be found seems a bad piece of Dadaist theatre. It simply cannot be. Especially when architects are understood by leaders in many countries to be among the change-makers that every society needs to celebrate - not imprison.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a glowing speech at the 2011 Pritzker Architecture Prize ceremonies honouring this year's recipient, Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. Obama likened him to Thomas Jefferson, saying that, through his architecture, he has redefined "the frontiers of his art, but doing so in a manner to serve the public good." He confessed, too, of once harbouring the desire to become an architect himself: "I expected to be more creative than I turned out, so I turned to politics instead."

On the other side of the world, the state-run Global Times newspaper in China wrote, "As long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day. Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice."

Ai's "special choice" has transformed lives. His installation at the Tate, which closed last month, was a mind-boggling creative enterprise for which he commissioned hundreds of artists in the historic town of Jingdezhen to create sunflowers using the ancient craft of porcelain-making. He worked with local craftspeople for five years, supervising the kilns, stopping by painters' work desks, gently asking the artists whether they liked the project. The commission had returned some of the past glory to what was once considered the porcelain capital of China.

With a click of the computer, you can watch a video of Ai walking across the thick blanket of sunflowers in Turbine Hall and hear the crunch of the porcelain seeds giving way under his feet. Even during his absence, it is possible to feel his presence. Ai is with us, still fearlessly devoted to his ideals. Go online and call for the release of Ai, an artist, an architect, an extraordinary human being - forced to exit the room, but not disappeared.