Drawing on traditions of scholarliness and non-conformity, Wang Shu’s new guesthouse for the China Academy of Art adds to the remote campus neighbourhood that he has been building for over a decade
Last year the architectural world was given a jolt when for the first time in its 34-year history the distinguished Pritzker Prize was awarded to somebody from mainland China. Wang Shu was a relative unknown in architectural circles, let alone beyond its narrow orbit. The intervening 12 months have been an expedited education not only for those who knew little or nothing about this elusive professional, but also for Wang who is unaccustomed to the limelight and uncomfortable in its glare. After a year of almost constant travelling and official obligations, Wang has returned to the east coast city of Hangzhou, home to the China Academy of Art where he is Dean of the School of Architecture, to oversee the final stages in the construction of the new guesthouse and reception centre at the Academy’s Xiangshan Campus, his first building to be completed since the Pritzker award.
Nestled in the mountains south-west of Hangzhou, the campus is not only where Wang works: it is his work. He designed all 22 buildings constructed in two phases over nine years. The Wa Shan (Tile Mountain) guesthouse is the start of the third phase, which will soon incorporate works by other architects: Alvaro Siza and Kengo Kuma. The opportunity for one architect to have designed an entire campus on this scale is perhaps unprecedented and it has coincided with Wang’s ascent from reluctant local architect to global icon, or at the very least a champion of the non-conformist. The three phases reflect the evolution in Wang’s architectural language over the last decade, while creating a tranquil academic neighbourhood fostering a community of more than 6,000 students and staff from four university departments: Architecture, Design, Public Art, and Media and Animation.
Wang joined the China Academy of Art in 2000, teaching in the Department of Environmental Design, before becoming Dean of the newly established School of Architecture in 2007. Architecture’s incorporation into this esteemed institution has been an important development for China, and indeed the world, as the most populous country (and soon to be largest economy) seeks to surpass the West, while Western organisations desperate not to forgo the fruits of China’s unparalleled growth wrestle to forge links with local partners. Despite being China’s premier institution for art education, the China Academy of Art, like Wang, has prospered from relative anonymity compared with big universities in the country’s major cities. The Academy prides itself on its progressive origins in 1928, when it was founded by China’s first Minister of Education, Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), and the pioneering artist and promoter of a synthesis of Eastern (guohua) and Western (xihua) techniques, Lin Fengmian (1900-91).
The traditions of both the China Academy of Art and Hangzhou, an ancient city renowned for its natural and cultural heritage, are crucial factors in Wang’s scheme for the Xiangshan Campus and especially the Wa Shan guesthouse. The impact of these factors on the appearance, form and meaning of these designs are perhaps, as is often the case when it comes to matters concerning China, obscure to Western eyes. In conversation with Wang, he goes to considerable lengths to explain. Far from being a justification of his work, his account reveals an idealistic zeal and profound passion for art and scholarship, and their role in professional practice, understanding history and improving society. He is fascinated, possessed even, by the literati − the scholarly mandarins that, by exerting influence throughout the kingdom and across all social strata, were the unofficial rulers of China for over two millennia. The literati class was born not out of wealth but out of intellect. Morality and virtuosity governed their realm and art was their means of expression conveyed through the three pre-eminent art forms: poetry, painting and calligraphy. In 1911, the literati were among the many casualties that followed China’s turbulent transition from Imperialism to Republicanism.
Over a century later, during which Republicanism was replaced by Communism, many Chinese question the present convulsions reshaping the country, threatening its venerable culture and straining its communities. Wang is mindful that the moral and virtuous basis of the bygone literati system has an alluring appeal to critics of China’s recent development and the associated economic inequality. A strong moral code, pure artistic expression and scholarly detachment were essential facets of the literati class − a far cry from the acquisitive ruling classes that are increasingly seen as the cause of China’s present ills. But although the literati system may have died a century ago, its significance has not. Its roots, which have always run deep in Hangzhou, continue to be cultivated at the China Academy of Art, and in Wang’s latest work are beginning to bud and blossom.
Uncomfortable with the role and label of architect, Wang sees his position more akin to the literati tradition, using art to influence and improve things. Architecture was not considered an art form in China until the early 20th century when the first Chinese graduates started returning from an overseas education. For Wang though, it is not the method of artistic expression that is important but its purpose. The liberated artist, whether an architect, poet, painter or calligrapher, has, in his view, two choices: to become a recluse or an activist. For him, the latter honours the literati tradition and it is the path he has chosen to take. For him it is the only means by which to effect change while evading the endless cycle of revolution and counter-revolution that consumes the masses. Being autonomous, the literati could be both subversive and politically active, and herein lies Wang’s determination to remain outside the mainstream while pursuing his art. Nonconformity defines not only his unique approach to building, but his entire outlook on life, from the title of the practice that he shares with his wife, Lu Wenyu, ‘Amateur Architecture Studio’, to his role at the China Academy of Art.
Xiangshan Campus offered him and Lu Wenyu the opportunity to engage in architectural practice on their terms. He admits, perhaps too modestly, that what they have created here is not the real world. The project was commissioned by their employer with a sizeable budget in an ample and picturesque setting. Unlike most commercial jobs, Xiangshan Campus granted them an extended licence to experiment and that is one of its chief appeals; it is clearly a seedbed and a work in progress, not a haughty attempt at perfection. The site of the campus surrounds a small mountain ridge that is a fragment of the mountainous terrain that blankets much of southern China and peters out as it meets the vast plains of the Yangtze delta. The rugged landscape not only provides the backdrop to Wang’s overall scheme, it is the inspiration behind it.
The first phase, 2004-07, is to the north of the mountain. Forming a ribbon of independent concrete structures that extend from the campus’s main entrance at the east of the site to a recreation ground in the north-west corner, the nine buildings are laid out on a relatively conventional plan and linked by pedestrian walkways. At the centre of the group, four large buildings are arranged around courtyards, one of Wang’s trademark features that he uses both literally and in abstraction. Here he has used them both in the conventional enclosed manner and adapted by opening them up on one side to give framed panoramas of the scenery. The long horizontal bands of timber screens that function as shutters to upper floor corridors and doorways to ground floor spaces in these courtyards soften the building’s concrete skeleton and break up the facade with irregular openings that create another feature of his work − an intermediary space, neither interior nor exterior.
Wang famously spent eight years (1990-98) away from architecture getting his hands dirty on construction sites rather than controlling a mouse on a screen (which he still refuses to do), to hone his skills in the craft of building. The experience is evident in the characteristic tactility of his work and his skill in using different materials. The campus’s first phase draws from a palette of concrete, steel, wood, bamboo, brick, glass and clay tiles, which would be augmented by other materials in later phases. Inevitably, experiments have not always been successful. The 13-storey glass and concrete tower is the least inspiring of the nine structures. It is a rare example of high-rise structures in Wang’s portfolio, which he has entertained more successfully in the Vertical Courtyard in Hangzhou.
The second phase, 2007-11, comprising 13 buildings arranged around the southern side of the mountain, displays a marked development in Wang’s approach. Unlike the previous phase, the plan is irregular and obscure, creating complex and unexpected relationships between the buildings and the landscape. Exposed corners jar with formal elevations and informal vistas are framed by semi-enclosed courtyards or jagged openings in concrete walls that recall the patterned windows of the traditional Chinese garden. The entire scheme is crisscrossed by elevated walkways that wind their diagonal course around and through the buildings breaking down the horizontality of the facades and binding the whole scheme physically and functionally.
The twin dormitory blocks, with their walls of irregular fenestration behind narrow concrete struts appearing like a blanched bamboo forest, are connected to the spacious refectory arranged around an inner courtyard, which in turn looks into the café that operates from the hulking body of converted steam engine overlooking a large stream: an unconventional scene where an unconventional neighbourhood unwinds. Everywhere the often forced and wearisome intensity of standard academic environments has been broken down, softened by the profusion of lakes, streams, trees, pathways, bamboo groves, benches, courtyards and open grassland. Here is an academic neighbourhood where established boundaries separating work and leisure are thoroughly blurred; whose creator once responded to comments that classrooms could be too dark: ‘Who said teaching had to be conducted inside?’
Wang admits he is a nonconformist and he appears to thrive on challenging architectural convention, which has attracted disapproval from some peers and commentators. There are those who claim the excessive creative freedom in the Xiangshan Campus project has compromised the functionality and performance of the architecture. Wang is aware of this criticism and sensitive to it, but whether a supporter or detractor, the academic neighbourhood at Xiangshan has an enviable status and the innovations that this project has cultivated have been instrumental in other successes that have helped gain him international recognition. The wa pian qiang (clay-tile wall), for example, is one of the key elements of the Ningbo History Museum (2008), reconstituting the ruins of the villages that once occupied the site. The innovation of bamboo formwork that makes its mark in the campus’s concrete walls can also be found, albeit slightly adapted, at Ningbo. And the graceful arc of the majestic Chinese roof that has been abstracted in concrete to cover the School of Architecture buildings remerges in Hangzhou’s Zhongshan Road redevelopment (2011).
The distillation of ideas, refinement of old techniques and exploration of new ones are developed in the third phase, but what separates this latest addition from the previous two phases is Wang’s motivation. His maverick approach and respect for the literati tradition have always informed his work, but at Wa Shan they become physically manifest. The site occupies a slither of land on the banks of a river at the foot of the mountain. As with the previous two phases, the environment shaped the design, but the proximity of the mountain and water were crucial for Wang and nourished his sensitivity for tradition and a sense of place.
The project was first proposed in 2006 when six obsolete houses from the ’90s occupied the site. Wang’s original plan was to replace these with six new structures totalling 5,000sqm, but the project stalled and by the time it finally resumed in 2011 he had decided on a significant modification: the use of rammed earth. The incorporation of this material, which (like the wa pian qiang, bamboo and stone) is found in local vernacular structures, demanded a fundamental redesign and the conception of its most conspicuous feature − the 100m long roof − which protects the earthen walls from the heavy rains that make this one of the most fertile regions in the world.
The roof is the design’s central element, physically and conceptually. Wherever you are in relation to the building, the roof is omnipresent with its mass of wooden struts on its underside concealing its steel structure. Beyond framing the landscape and providing shelter, the roof stages views, accommodates the assorted buildings beneath its rising and falling canopy, and on occasions opens up to flood courtyards with natural light. It is a versatile landscape too. The vast blanket of grey tiles covering the roof becomes a landscape in a literal sense, with gardens, courtyards and a pathway snaking over its peaks and disappearing into the valleys like the famous Great Wall.
However, to associate the roof with a mountainscape only in a physical sense belies a more thoughtful intention. Wang uses the roof as a unifying medium in the same way that literati painters used the mountainscape in traditional landscape painting. Their aim was to create a scene that encapsulated the experiences of someone in this natural setting. They were not attempting to convey reality in a single image, but rather a series of experiences or feelings. The literati called these landscape paintings Shan Shui Hua (Mountain Water Painting). Mountains and water are the two essential elements of this form of Chinese art.
The same two elements are integral to the rural vernacular of Zhejiang Province, from which Wang draws so much inspiration. It is mountains and water that bring together the components for the architectural design of Wa Shan: the literati tradition, Hangzhou’s heritage, the campus plan, and the site itself − facing a river with its back to a mountain. Wa Shan is his attempt to translate the two-dimensional form and meaning of traditional Chinese landscape painting into a three-dimensional spatial experience − to convert an ancient art form into modern architecture. In describing architecture’s role in this process of translation he draws on another of the literati’s art forms: poetry, which he sees as the ultimate art form. Feelings and experiences, he explains, do not make a poem until they have been placed in some kind of structure. The process of translating profound thoughts and feelings into something that can be experienced by others (and in the case of architecture physically engaged with) is the aim of the artist and that is what Wang wants with Wa Shan.
As he intended, the protracted building reads as separate experiences in a unified landscape. As you cross the building from one section to the next, from the dining area to the teahouse or one of the 30 private rooms to the conference hall, there is a sense of being in an artificial landscape − a film set or theatre stage − as the scenes dramatically change from one space to another: from a slender bridge hovering over water one moment to an open courtyard peering down on the river the next. The rhythm, explains Wang, derives from the Chinese classical landscape poetry from the Wei and Jin Periods (220-420AD), which had a short, relatively free structure. Like the space within Wa Shan, the poem moves swiftly from one setting to the next.
Wa Shan is both a progression and a distillation of the different phases that have fashioned this academic neighbourhood. Materially, the ochre tones of the rammed earth form buttresses and internal walls that complement the myriad surface textures within and outside the building: stone, brick, concrete, steel, tile, timber and bamboo. Permeable walls and screens, abstracted courtyards, tactile surfaces, framed views, blended materials, and unexpected routes and pathways around, through and uniting the various scenes are all established devices, but their amalgamation in a single building elevates it to an almost fantastical construction accommodating multiple journeys and explorations. The aim, explains Wang, is to give visitors a rounded experience of a mountain. Three different pathways lead from the main reception through the building on three different levels − ground floor, first floor and the rooftop − allowing visitors to navigate their way around this landscape in the knowledge that at the end of the journey they can find rest in their room, the primordial cave.
Critics might claim Wa Shan is a Modernist structure in elaborate clothing, but although Wang’s work owes a debt to Modernism, his innovative approach and assimilation of traditions transcends this unwieldy label, producing an architectural language of sophistication and originality. As China concentrates on its own version of modernity, Wang’s surprise entry onto the world’s architectural stage is timely enough, but he would be the first to acknowledge that it is the young men and women being educated on the campus he designed that will face the biggest challenges in their lifetime. At least at Xiangshan Campus they have been given the best possible start in life.
All photographs by Edward Denison. More photos of the Wa Shan Guesthouse and campus are available on edwards website.