The building was designed and built by Ai upon encouragement and persuasion from a "high official [from Shanghai]" as part of a new cultural area designated by Shanghai Municipal authorities; Ai would have used it as a studio and to teach architecture courses.
But now Ai has been accused of erecting the structure without the necessary planning permission and a demolition notice has been ordered, even though, Ai said, officials had been extremely enthusiastic, and the entire application and planning process was "under government supervision".
In response to the government's lack of transparency in revealing names of students who perished in the earthquake due to substandard school campus constructions, Ai recruited volunteers online and launched a "Citizens' Investigation" to compile names and information of the student victims.
On 20 March 2009, he posted a blog titled "Citizens' Investigation" and wrote: "To remember the departed, to show concern for life, to take responsibility, and for the potential happiness of the survivors, we are initiating a "Citizens' Investigation." We will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them." Ai suffered headaches and claimed he had difficulty concentrating on his work since returning from Chengdu in August 2009, where he was beaten by the police for trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a fellow investigator of the shoddy construction and student casualties in the earthquake.
In 1999, Ai moved to Caochangdi, in the northeast of Beijing, and built a studio house – his first architectural project.
Due to his interest in architecture, he founded the architecture studio FAKE Design, in 2003.
yet Ai participated in regular Stars group shows, The Stars: Ten Years, 1989 (Hanart Gallery, Hong Kong and Taipei), and a retrospective exhibition in Beijing in 2007: Origin Point (Today Art Museum, Beijing). For the first few years, Ai lived in Philadelphia and San Francisco.
He studied English at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley.
He later dropped out of school, and made a living out of drawing street portraits and working odd jobs.
The resulting collection of photos were later selected and is now known as the New York Photographs.
At the same time, Ai became fascinated by blackjack card games and frequented Atlantic City casinos.