A Dissident Did Our Guesthouse

Photographs by Iwan Baan

Illustration by Jason Lee

It is one thing to own a dozen original “Zodiac Head” sculptures by the Chinese artist, dissident, and human-rights cause célèbre Ai Weiwei.* It is quite another to live in a house partially designed by him. But such is the good fortune of two Columbia County art collectors, who six years ago commissioned the Swiss firm HHF Architects and its scruffily bearded collaborator to build them a home with a detached guesthouse and garage on a pastoral 40-acre plot upstate.* (Since then, Ai has been imprisoned for alleged tax evasion by the Chinese government, held without trial for three months, and then placed under house arrest in Beijing. Efforts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.) Having collaborated with Ai on several projects in China, including one of seventeen public pavilions in the artist’s Jinhua Architecture Park, they continued their fruitful partnership here in two acts. First came the main house, a rectangular structure with indentations demarcating four identically shaped, metal-clad wooden boxes. Then the team, led by Simon Frommenwiler and HHF co-founders Tilo Herlach and Simon Hartmann, began an even more stunning addition to the rolling green landscape: a floating boomerang of rusty Cor-Ten steel. The guesthouse emerges from the hillside in a Y-shaped plan that contains a bedroom, a living/work room, and an entry hall and gallery for art. Currently on display in the gallery, bathed in natural light and placed on simple white stands like a silent tribute to their creator: four Zodiac Heads.

*This article has been corrected to show that the collectors own a dozen “Zodiac Head” sculptures, not four, and that the house sits on a 40-acre plot, not 22.

Welcome, Guests The entryway doubles as a private art gallery, lit in part by one of the house’s three circular skylights. Below sits the property’s garage. Photo: Iwan Baan

A Dissident Did Our Guesthouse