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March 9, 2012

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Honored architect goes his own way

PRIZE-WINNING architect Wang Shu would rather talk to ordinary construction workers than most architects and he gives workers on site leeway to improvise a bit and even improve on his design.

So when the Pritzker Prize was recently awarded to 49-year-old Wang, the decision caused a bit of surprise in China's architecture circles where a more "establishment" architect (East or West) had been expected to take what is widely considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in architecture.

Wang is dean of the architecture college at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. He designed its notable Xiangshan campus and also runs Amateur Architect Studio, his design firm.

But the award (to be presented in Beijing on May 25) wasn't a surprise to those who had been watching Wang's creativity over the years and his development of a new language for contemporary Chinese architecture.

Wang has been outspoken (some say unpleasantly so) in his criticism of much of the architecture in China today and the demolition of old buildings to make way for modern ones. He also criticizes Chinese architects who have embraced "Western templates" without question.

In his work he uses salvaged materials, often millions of pieces, to create what critics call lean and muscular contemporary works that pay respect to China's past, without delivering a cliched and sentimental interpretation of history.

Wang himself is emphatic that an architect should not have a particular style, saying that he is a pioneer of the experimental architect movement started in the late 1990s.

"My work is a transcendental art that discusses the conflict between modernism and tradition, the recycling and consumption of materials, and the sustainable development of the society," he told Shanghai Daily on Wednesday.

He is also emphatic that the Pritzker Prize should also recognize his wife and design partner Lu Wenyu. Together they founded the Amateur Architecture Studio in 1997. "Without her, the plans could not turn into reality," he said on Thursday.

Some dramatic facades are made entirely of recycled bricks, stones, tiles and glass from demolition sites. There's a ruggedness deliberate irregularity and asymmetry in his works. Windows may be of different sizes and irregularly spaced.

"It's just a prize," Wang said of the Pritzker. "I have always insisted on going my own way and after getting the prize, I will keep going," he told a press conference yesterday at the Xiangshan campus. He designed the buildings using 6 million recycled pieces of all kinds.

He is also the dean of architecture and has renovated the curriculum, requiring students to do a year of carpentry, bricklaying and general construction - unheard of for white collars who don't want to get their hands dirty.

Wang also designed the Ningbo History Museum, using 1 million recycled pieces of stone, tile and brick in the dramatic, angular facade.

These and other works were praised by the Pritzker jury as "exemplary in the strong sense of cultural continuity and reinvigorated tradition."

The selection of an architect from China "represents a significant step in acknowledging the role China will play in development of architectural ideals," said Thomas J. Pritzker, head of the Hyatt Foundation that sponsors the award, in announcing the prize on February 27. It carries a US$100,000 cash award.

Wang is unperturbed by critics who question the practicality of some works, including the design of the Xiangshan campus, asking why it's "like a maze" and why it needs five staircases, with two of them not leading to another floor. Online a number of people have called some designs impractical, such as a dormitory without sufficient light, with one room having multiple windows and others none.

"People need to learn to use my buildings, which lead them to different experiences - just like life," he said.

Wang also said, "I spread my art to society, unlike some who appreciate their art in their studios," Wang said.

He carefully studies his materials and their possibilities, and unlike most architects, he spent a decade working on construction sites and working with carpenters, masons and other craftsmen to learn their skills. When he wasn't toiling away, earning virtually nothing, he was thinking about the nature of architecture and what it should mean. During that time his wife Lu Wenyu supported him.

Today Wang requires his freshman architecture students to spend a year working with their hands, learning basic carpentry and bricklaying. He praises the vernacular architecture of nameless craftsmen over the years.

"That 10-year period gave me the feeling for building materials and I discovered the value of hand craftsmanship," he explained.

"The experience taught me that hand crafting can never be replaced by machines." The architect must solve the problem of how to make traditional materials made by hand compatible with modern architectural technology, he said.

"My solution is to make traditional things alive ... If you don't lead things in a good direction, they will go in a bad direction."

In 1997, after his hands-on decade, he opened Amateur Architecture Studio with his wife, who also studied architecture. Its name reflects spontaneity and experimentation.

Wang spent his entire study years and career in China, though he has lectured at Harvard University and recently visited UCLA. He has only designed buildings in China, though he has been recognized with international awards.

He is the second Chinese-born architect to win the Pritzker; I.M. Pei won it in 1983 when he was firmly established in the United States.

Born in 1963 in Urumqi, in the far western Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Wang was inspired by his father, a musician and amateur carpenter, and his mother, a teacher and school librarian. Despite the anti-intellectual fervor of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), his mother gave him access to the library and he read widely - Pushkin to Lu Xun.

His parents urged him to study engineering. They compromised on architecture and Wang holds degrees from the Nanjing Institute of Technology in Jiangsu Province, Southeast University in the same province, and Tongji University in Shanghai.

Chinese templates

Wang has criticized the tendency of many Chinese architects who study abroad to employ "Western templates." He is working on his own templates for pagodas, courtyards and temples.

Traditional Chinese architecture has a long and scientific system of building houses, he said, adding that in the past Chinese buildings did not damage the environment, they were easily dismantled and they grew together with their natural setting.

Today he fuses modernist forms with salvaged materials that draw from China's culture and history.

Examples include the Library of Wenzheng College at Suzhou University, where Wang worked with the existing landscape and absorbed traditional methods of Suzhou gardening. Traditionally buildings sited between mountains and water should not be prominent, and thus Wang designed the library with half of the building underground, which also reflects traditions of "feng shui" that maximizes positive energy flow.

At the Xiangshan campus, Wang integrated sustainable building practices and technologies with China's traditional construction and design, using 6 million tiles from demolished houses to cover the roofs and walls. Combined with concrete, the recycled materials provide effective roofing insulation.

In addition, his work conveys a deeply critical message about the nature and pace of Chinese urbanization; he feels China's forward movement should be slower, more horizontal and more rural.

He says his ideal city should be low rise, with roads no wider than 12 meters. To accommodate big populations, he places buildings close together.

"High buildings do not allow people a sense of belonging because they are separated from the earth," he said. In Hangzhou at Qianjiang area, he created apartment blocks in which each apartment has a two-story backyard, where people can plant gardens and trees.

Wang calls himself a literati, as well as an architect. He is also an accomplished calligrapher. He wrote "The Beginning of Design" in 2002, reads both Western and Eastern philosophy and says there is a long list of thinkers who have influenced him.

He compares building houses as writing novels. "I fabricate a space, waiting for people to walk there, sit there and act there. How fascinating."

For example, what he expects at the Xiangshan campus, which he designed, is that many spaces can be utilized: someone can sleep on a bench under an awning, a professor can hold class under a huge tree, on a porch or on the roof. Also, he made the campus full of stretches free of obstacles to movement, not only for people with disabilities, but also for energetic students who can have a bicycle ride around the entire school, including every floor and ceiling of buildings.


For a decade, while he worked with his hands and did a lot of thinking, Wang was supported financially and emotionally by his wife Lu Wenyu, an unusual arrangement in China. But Wang is unusual.

He has always stood up for what he believed in. While he was a junior in college he led a campaign against courses that obliged students to make commercial designs. He finally won, and professors agreed that students could choose any kind of design.

In 1987, when Wang was 24 and studying for a master's degree, he wrote a thesis titled "The Crisis of Modern Chinese Architecture," which criticized every modern architect in the country from his town tutor to Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), a well-known thinker and architect in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

After graduation, he did not mince words, saying that China does not have its own modern architects, modern architecture and modern architecture theory.

A teacher in Southeast University has vivid recollections of the young architect. "When he was walking in the school, I didn't think that's a man walking around, but a knife walking and people had better get out of the way.'


Wang has turned the architecture curriculum upside down, requiring all students at the architecture college of the China Academy of Art to learn carpentry and bricklaying for a one year.

"Only people who understand the nature of materials can make art using the materials," he said. Wang also teaches other teachers basic building skills, so the architecture department is not just filled with academicians, but teachers with practical knowledge.

He throws out the standard textbook on architecture and instead assigns writings by various architects. He requires students to take hand-sketching and draftsmanship for three years in a time when most architecture students use computers and only study draftsmanship for six months. He says he never uses a computer. He also requires students study Chinese philosophy, calligraphy and painting.

He painstakingly answers every question and is rigorous in punishing plagiarism, a problem in many colleges.

(Shao Lingwei also contributed to the story)

Ruan Yisan

Urban planning professor from Shanghai Tongji University, director of the National Research Center of Historic Cities

Wang Shu has done a great job inheriting and developing traditional architecture styles, while blending them with modern Western styles.

In Chinese architecture today, there's a prevailing worship of the West, as in the so-called retrospective (style), which is just copying from the West. But Wang's talents in explaining traditional features with modern architect language may inspire many architects, especially in his artful use of materials from old buildings that have been torn down. His design for Wenzheng College Library at Suzhou University is very impressive. It blends perfectly with the surrounding environment, drawing inspiration from the famed Suzhou gardens. But he doesn't just copy the gardens, he incorporates some modern techniques.

Li Xiangning

Professor and assistant to the dean of College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tongji University

It's no surprise Wang Shu won this award. I've appreciated his designs for years. He successfully magnifies traditional Chinese architecture, such as small bridges and flowing water, to a modern large scale. His designs, though not specific forms, express the essence of traditional Chinese architecture and culture.

His prize may encourage more architects to get out of the system and start their own practice (where they can be more creative). Unlike many so-called successful architects who don't have time to work on blueprints themselves, Wang draws every piece himself.


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