Wang Shu, the Chinese recipient of the 2012 Pritzker Prize, is a champion of architectural heritage in a country that has erased much of its built past
One of the earliest Pritzker laureates was IM Pei, who left China to study and work in the US, and returned at age 88 to create a museum in Suzhou (AR October 2007), the city of classic gardens where his family had lived for nine centuries. His building drew on the rich heritage of Chinese architecture, and now the Pritzker jury has awarded its prize to Wang Shu, an architect who champions that tradition from his base in Hangzhou.
It’s an inspired choice, for it lends support to a maverick who stands apart from most of his contemporaries, crafting buildings that recycle old materials and reinterpret traditional forms. The selection sends a message to the Chinese authorities and the developers they coddle: ‘respect, don’t erase the past’.
Very little of that past has survived the successive depredations of Mao and the new capitalists. A few landmarks are preserved, a handful of villages and old quarters have been tarted up for tourists, but nearly all the vernacular buildings have been demolished. ‘From 1950 to 1980 the Chinese were brainwashed, lost confidence in their own culture and blamed it for their poverty,’ says Wang.
‘The new China lacks appreciation for old things, having never learned about them. The heritage is largely lost, but there is a possibility of bridging the divide between contemporary and past times. That feeds into a widespread desire to become a more creative nation.’
It’s appropriate that Wang received word of the Pritzker on his mobile phone while showing his wife and 10-year-old son the army of terracotta soldiers in the tomb of the First Emperor near Xi’an, where his parents now live. Past and present collided, reminding the architect of experiences that had shaped his life and work.
He was born in 1963 in Urumqi, a city near the remote north-western frontier, and he learned to appreciate the vast sweep of the Chinese landscape as a child, on a four-day train trip to Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution, when the school his mother taught at was closed, he joined local farmers in planting vegetables in the grounds.
After graduating from the Nanjing Institute of Technology he settled in Hangzhou, a city that has grown exponentially but still preserves memories of its imperial past and the beauty of a lake surrounded by wooded mountains. He practised calligraphy and immersed himself in the world of landscape scrolls, especially of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), which made Hangzhou a centre of artistic expression. In that era, he might have become a scholar, wandering in the countryside or settling in a garden villa to paint and compose poems.
This idealised world of cloud-capped mountains, unpolluted streams and delicate pavilions is far removed from present-day realities. And yet, while drifting across the misty lake in a small boat, Wang can imagine he has been transported back in time. In the 1990s, he spent seven years restoring old buildings, working hands-on for long hours with artisans and learning their skills. Friends thought he was crazy, but it laid a solid foundation for his practice.
In 1997, he and his wife Lu Wenyu established the Amateur Architecture Studio, a name that expresses the love he feels for research, design and the process of building. He was already teaching at the China Academy of Art when he won the commission to design its new campus on farmland outside the city. That gave him the opportunity to draw on his skills and memories to achieve a fusion of urbanity and nature.
The Xiangshan campus (AR July 2008) comprises 21 buildings, which were built in two three-year phases. They form a linear community that embraces the natural and manmade landscape. Wang strove to capture the gestural freedom of a calligrapher’s brushstrokes and the tension between the characters and the intervening spaces. Seven million tiles and bricks, salvaged from old buildings demolished in Hangzhou’s race to modernise, are used as cladding or infill in boldly modelled concrete frames. Jagged openings and swooping roofs abstract traditional forms without mimicking them.
Still more abstract is the cluster of six residential towers he designed for a developer friend who was persuaded to build something radically different from the norm. It began as a collection of small neighbourhood buildings, and ended as 26-storey stacks of duplexes with gracefully curved balconies that give owners the illusion they are living in a house rather than an apartment block. As these two projects were nearing completion, Amateur were working in the port city of Ningbo, converting a riverfront factory into a municipal art gallery.
Immediately after, they constructed a monumental history museum (AR March 2010) that employs the language and materials of the campus on a grander scale. The museum is on a flat site, at a good distance from other buildings, so Wang conceived the 24m-high block as a mountain, like the dominant feature of a landscape painting. In Hangzhou, he accepted a commission to reanimate a one kilometre stretch of decayed 19th-century buildings along a main street in what remains of the old city.
He remodelled existing structures, narrowed the street to incorporate gathering spaces and made a small museum that is a tiny masterpiece of craftsmanship, with its diagonally boarded walls, timber vaults and spiky tiled roof.
As a teacher, Wang is eager to embark on ambitious projects. ‘Every village was once its own little city with a distinctive structure and character,’ he says. ‘They are being systematically destroyed to create metropolises.’ He hopes to establish a branch of the Academy of Art in the countryside where his students might spend half a year collaborating on projects that upgrade infrastructure and amenities, to make rural living more appealing and stem the flight of young people.
As an architect, he prefers to work on a modest scale. ‘My studio is like a small school,’ he explains, ‘and sometimes I give my 10 assistants time off for homework assignments, to read books on art and philosophy and watch recommended movies. I don’t want them to become like workers in a factory. Life is important, too.’ Wang himself was planning two years off to spend with his son, but that ambition has vanished with the attention the Pritzker is sure to brin