Wang Shu: Chi­nese Should In­habit Their Own Cul­tural Spa­ces

China Pictorial (English) - - Fea­tures - Edited by Zhao Yue

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.”

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