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Viewpoints: Peter Cook on Oriental Originality

Peter Cook

The West rests on its laurels, as Oriental originality emerges

Since architecture schools were still but a gleam in the eye, cultured young Gentlemen of the 18th century were sent from the English shires to take a good look at the ruins of Greece and Rome and devise, from these observations, a system of architectural Manners. By the latter part of the 19th century cultured young Gentlemen were sent from the United States to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris to be disciplined in architectural composition and certain preferred types of interpretation.

Even the mildly observant can then have a whale of a time figuring out just how much reinterpretation – or deliberate misinterpretation then led to a vigorous architecture. The English predilection for craft and minutiae led sometimes to a softened or even weedy, bricky result (not everybody can be a Hawksmoor), and  the American scene demanded adaption to a consciously forceful and industrial society. So HH Richardson came back from Paris with an opened mind and a bold amalgam of many European inspirations.

Think of this as we of the West welcome with open arms our young visitors from China, Japan, Korea and around. In the schools that I have been in during the last few months: Yale, Cornell, SCI-Arc, Bartlett, the AA, the audiences have been 50 per cent Asian: and they are no longer shy to come forward to meet you or question your viewpoint. Indeed, in recent years such relatively elite academies have begun to assume (as presumably, did the Beaux-Arts) that they possess some advanced and precious commodity that ambitious parents or canny scholarship committees value. It is easy for the fashionable offices to ride upon the same assumption and regard the whole business as a marvellous one-way boost.

But five days ago I went to meet the architects in the exhibition From Bejing to London; 16 studios ranging from the commercial to the ‘boutique’ via that particularly Chinese invention: the design and research office related to a university (a concept that has been endlessly talked about in the West but rarely developed). Knowing that China is moving fast had not prepared me for the actual quality of the work.

Sure, you could see some influences, of Ando, Herzog, the Swiss, early Isozaki: but let us not flatter ourselves – what came through was the fact that much of this stuff has considerable originality. Whether it’s exuding sheer talent in the case of Li Xinggang, chief architect of the China Architecture Design & Research Group; daring to go where deconstruction left off in the case of Urbanus’ Dafen Art Gallery, or recalling the calm romanticism of Sigurd Lewerentz in Zhou Kai’s Cui Garden and Feng Jicai Institute. I could go on and on.

Moreover, we were reminded in Wang Hui’s lecture introduction, that everything gets built very fast, and I wondered as I sat there about the spider’s web that the West has erected for itself that seems to make every building take too long with bold or thoughtful buildings taking even longer. How long, I wondered, will those kids need to come to our academies? Or sit dutifully in our ‘name’ offices. If the Grand Tour was viable for two or three hundred years or the Beaux-Arts experience for eighty or so, how long do we have? And do we deserve it?

Four years ago I commented in these pages about the phenomenon of Yung Ho Chang leading MIT’s school and Qingyun Ma leading USC’s. It was but a straw in the wind. So now the dismissal in some parts of the press of Wang Shu’s Pritzker Prize as ‘political’ irritates.

Michael Webb’s more informed perspective in last month’s AR should have given us much to ponder over and Shu must surely become a role model for a stream of young architects wherever they are. But I also suggest that a special characteristic of his work is its ‘eye’ and compositional knowingness and the man himself a sophisticated lecturer (in English of course!) and a cheerful dinner companion.

It all stacks up.

Peter Cook

Peter Cook was interviewed for the AR’s innovators series where he discusses design and his inspirations


Readers' comments (2)

  • Well, mr. Shu might well be a "cheerful dinner companion", a wonderful architect, everything you want, but let's not forget the highways to nowhere, the empty megallopolises or the crumbling-under-their-own-weight high-rises the Republic of China built for its own citizens in the last 30 years (oh, and i forgot to mention it, lets not forget the thousands of chinese citizens living, meanwhile, in mountain caves, shall we).

    I have numerous links to give you here about those proven facts, unfortunately they're in romanian, as a romanian citizen is what i am. But what i mean to say here is that, ok, agreed, the chinese are a great people, with a great history, but i don't think they'll outbuild us, americans+europeans, not in my lifetime, anyway. All the best, and good thoughts to you.

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  • A building from china, fallen due to very shallow foundations. Otherwise, true, the building in itself was very ok.

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