Wang Shu: Chinese Should Inhabit Their Own Cultural Spaces
Born in Urumqi, northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in 1963, Wang Shu often jokes that he is merely an “amateur architect” with only meager knowledge in the field. However, in 2012 this “amateur architect” became the first Chinese to win the Pritzker Prize, the world’s top prize in architecture.
After receiving his master’s degree from the School of Architecture at Nanjing Institute of Technology (now Southeast University) in 1988, Wang began to work for the Hangzhou-based Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now China Academy of Art). By the time, the reform and opening-up policy had been implemented in China for about 10 years. In terms of architecture, the high-speed economic and social development manifested itself in the form of fancy styles with heavy decoration, not to mention the common real estate practice of mass demolition and construction. While most domestic architects were catering to the demands of such a market, Wang was reflecting on the traditions and reality of China’s architecture and blazing a new trail featuring architectural innovation and strong Chinese characteristics. His work creatively preserves and passes on traditional Chinese culture while exhibiting regional characteristics. Aiming to convey the idea that “Chinese should inhabit their own cultural spaces,” Wang’s work strives to exhibit the roots of simple and natural life.
When he began working in Hangzhou, Wang’s creative powers exploded. His work starkly contrasted most structures rising in China every day. When he mentions the term “amateur architect,” he is referring to a philosophy that architects should keep a relaxed rather than an overly-serious attitude towards their work. The term “amateur architect” also reinforced criticism of mainstream “professionally-built” structures at that time. For example, during a meeting to form a renovation plan for the Imperial Street of Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) of the Hangzhou municipal government in 2007, some suggested the old street be bulldozed and rebuilt. “This seemingly run-down street is actually the soul of Hangzhou,” gasped Wang at the meeting. “We are not just protecting an old street, but kindling the revitalization of the city.” Before taking on the renovation project, Wang laid out a few simple rules for the Hangzhou municipal government, such as insistence that they avoid fake antiques and forcing residents to leave. He spent three years on the street, which the emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty once walked, according to legend, into a timeless avenue of typical southern Chinese style.
Wang’s innovation and philosophy about architecture are reflected in many of his buildings. He transformed an abandoned shipping structure in Ningbo into the Ningbo Museum of Art, possibly the only museum in the world at which boats can anchored. He built Five Scattered Houses in Ningbo, experimental structures of differing architectural types and building technologies, as an exploration of construction of modern structures with Chinese souls. In his only commercial residential project, Qianjiang Times, Wang left plenty of public areas in the vertical building, leaving each residence a front and back yard. In this way, Wang hoped the inhabitants could recover long-lost living patterns and reestablish relationships with neighbors. For the Xiangshan Campus of China Academy of Art, Wang built a structure that blends with the natural environment using abundant Chinese elements. “Sometimes, you can’t tell the structure from the landscape.”
Lord Palumbo, current chair of the Pritzker Prize jury, believes that connection between present and past in Wang’s work is particularly timely. “The recent process of urbanization in China invites debate as to whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should look only towards the future,” he declared. “As with any great architecture, Wang Shu’s work is able to transcend that debate, producing an architecture that is timeless, deeply rooted in its context and yet universal.”