The architecture and teaching of Lu Wenyu emphasises the virtues of craft and precision, using historical knowledge as the catalyst for innovation
One of the hallmarks of the changing face of architecture in China is that a generation of young female architects is beginning to emerge into the limelight. Today, there are 20 times the number of women in full-time higher education than 40 years ago, and architecture is increasingly the programme of choice. Whether traditional or contemporary, small or large scale, academic or practitioner, many of these new female designers show China to be a place of creative possibilities. In my forthcoming book 20 Chinese Architects – which comprises solely female Chinese architects – it is evident that women in China are actively engaged in designing a diverserange of exciting projects across the country.
One such is Lu Wenyu, an architect, academic and experienced practice manager. She is not well known in the West, mainly due to her captivating modesty and an honest desire to avoid the limelight. ‘I don’t want the public to know much about me’, she says, in an interview for an article about her, but she has managed stay in the background precisely because of a fierce defence of her privacy. ‘I want to control my own life’, she says, ‘and there is nothing nicer than to sit quietly, unwind and drink a cup of tea.’ Of course, as one half of Amateur Architecture Studio, she overstates her leisurely lifestyle as she is constantly travelling, working on new projects, giving lectures and getting things built in her role as site architect.
During China’s turbulent years in the 1960s, her family were relocated to the countryside. She grew up in Urumqi in the remote western province of China. Her school teacher – who had been an architect – taught her to draw and encouraged her to apply to Nanjing’s Southeast University to study architecture. That journey to college from Xinjiang took four days and was the first time that she had left her hometown. She is now an architect of renown and a well-respected teacher in the prestigious China Academy of Art (CAA) in Hangzhou.
‘As the students’ skills develop, so they work on increasingly complex interlocking timber joints of a kind seen in inscrutable Chinese wooden puzzles’
CAA regularly tops the list of the prestigious ‘Double World-Class’ universities that siphon off the lion’s share of China’s state education funding, resources and expertise. These are the universities that the more ambitious students crave, so every year around 80,000 students compete for 1,600 places, a quarter of whom will eventually enter the architecture programme. To get in, they each must go through a gruelling two-day practical examination to supplement the nine-hour National College Entrance Examination. Every summer, the campus is jammed with thousands of students, fenced off in groups of 30-40, who are instructed to create a still-life pencil sketch, paint a life-drawing portrait in watercolours, and make a fast sketch from written instructions.
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These relentless tests are devised by the authorities to weed out unsuitable candidates. It’s a test in creativity that relies on structure, skill, style and following the official rules of expression. Students with incorrect shading technique, for example, fall at the first hurdle. The lucky few make it into another pedagogical experiment at CAA. Here, first and second year undergraduates have a very controlled curriculum, the third year is more open, and, says Wenyu, ‘in the fourth year we teach students a basic knowledge of architecture. Finally, in the fifth year, we give them freedom so they can use what they’ve learned during their previous years of education’. This course structure, devised by her husband Wang Shu, has been in place for just 10 years and was the first in China to be integrated into an art school.
Here the undergraduate cohort are schooled in the merits of good old-fashioned craft skills, such as woodwork, bricklaying or rammed earth, followed by Chinese calligraphy, sketching and drawing for the entire first year. It is not coincidental that Xiangshan Campus, designed by Wenyu and Wang Shu, is home to CAA’s Folk Art Museum celebrating traditional Chinese craftsmanship. Similarly, the recently opened China Design Museum, designed by Alvaro Siza, is a home for CAA’s vast Bauhaus collection, the intent of which is to emphasise simplicity in production.
It is a school that overtly describes its ambition to reclaim a narrative of Chinese history though a sensibility and sensitivity to nature and natural materials. Wenyu’s students are educated – trained – to develop a deep understanding of context that infuses their work. The Wencun Village development, where Wenyu spends much of her time coordinating work as the site architect, illustrates her belief that poorer, rural villages and traditional communities retain valuable cultural memories that contemporary architects can benefit from. Instinct, enhanced through a close reading of cultural technique, allows students to realise emotionally intelligent designs. Wenyu says that architects must learn to think for themselves and explore the many complex relationships in architecture, not only structure, philosophy and poetics, but also materials and tradition. At CAA, architecture students are even encouraged to write novels to spark their imaginations.
‘I want to control my own life, and there is nothing nicer than to sit quietly, unwind and drink a cup of tea’
In the first year of the five-year undergraduate architecture programme, students are given a foundational project to make a chair; a carpentry course led by Wenyu. This exercise is primarily designed to draw out what she calls the students’ ability to comprehend and master the manipulation of materials. The first exercise requires students, aided by a craftsman carpenter, to make a simple mortise-and-tenon joint. This process is said to encourage an awareness of the workability of timber, allowing the students to progress to make the six or seven common ways of generating Chinese traditional timber joints that hark back to the Song dynasty construction manual, the Yingzao Fashi, published in 1103. As the students’ skills develop, so they work on increasingly complex interlocking timber joints of a kind seen in inscrutable Chinese wooden puzzles.
After they have mastered technique, students are only then allowed to design and hand-make their chair. Wenyu says that the course is a process of enlightenment, designed to interrogate the formation and construction of things, firstly by: ‘arousing an awareness of timber as the most fundamental building material, and nurturing a working attitude of wisdom and preciseness’, and then celebrating ‘the unity of hand and mind of an artisan’. The conclusion of the course last year was displayed as a ‘mountain of chairs’.
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Such simple forms belie the artistry of Wenyu’s pedagogic ambitions. After all, Kenneth Frampton has called her ‘an autodidact master carpenter in tensegrity timber construction’, and she is clear in the way she wants to see architectural education unfold. She says: ‘I believe that architectural design is based on drawing, so it is essential to know that different lines represent different materials such as bamboo, wood, metal, concrete, bricks and earth. Our academy might be the only one in China which allows students to spend a year working with different materials and literally feeling them.’
That said, Wenyu is not a classic traditionalist and she understands the limitations of the past while recognising the essence of the cultural identity embodied within it. Her techniques are rooted in Chinese tradition but she insists that historical knowledge should be a springboard for her students – and herself – to explore new and inventive ideas. Constantly seeking to broaden her horizons, she says, ‘we should embrace everything’. Her experimental intent is to rediscover and retain a Chinese identity but within an international frame of reference. Culture, she says, cannot be cast in aspic.
In her role as partner of Amateur Architecture Studio, she is closely associated with the day-to-day running of construction projects and managing the dialogue between the users and the construction teams, although she is often more sympathetic towards the latter. For example, when tensions rise with large companies and Design Institutes, Wenyu is insistent on the integrity of the project to ‘make sure that every detail is perfectly in accordance with our requirements to better realise our design intent. Although our team may be small’, she maintains, ‘we are the core of a project’.
But on the Ningbo History Museum – a cooperation between the architect and local craftsmen – she says that the size and complexity of the structure proved too much for her to control everything. ‘The first phase was completely disappointing, not what we wanted at all.’ But by that stage, the cost and time implications made it impossible for her to condemn the work, so a compromise was reached whereby half of the building was torn down and reconstructed as designed by Amateur Architecture Studio, while the other half – the craftsmen’s own ideas and faults – remain. And there we have the secret of the world-famous aesthetic. A keen believer in serendipity, she says: ‘You have to keep the balance between controlling and letting go’.
In cooperation with Hao Jiang and Di Yang
This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to pick up your copy today