Master of the House: Architect Wang Shu

Discovery Magazine, May 2012.  Chinese architect and Pritzker winner Wang Shu may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay

He calls his studio ‘Amateur Architecture’. His work is anything but.

This year, China’s Wang Shu was lifted from the relative quiet of his small practice in Hangzhou by a heavyweight panel of his peers, hailed as a “virtuoso” and presented with architecture’s equivalent to an Academy Award: a Pritzker.

And yet just as Hollywood has its naysayers and anti-heroes, the Chinese architect is emerging as a kind of anti-designer.  “Design is an amateur activity. Life is more important,” he has said. “The Amateur Architecture studio is a purely personal architecture studio; it should not even be referred to as an architect’s office.”

The likelihood of him accepting ‘starchitect’ status and all the trappings that follow, seems low indeed.

Wang Shu’s career has been defined largely by art and experimentation. Born in China’s northern Xingjiang province and inspired by the vastness of the landscapes, he started to draw and paint early. Architecture, he says, was simply a way to fit his own creativity with his parents’ idea of success. Even today he likens his design process to that of a traditional Chinese painter: he studies the shape and the history of a space, then often sits and drinks tea until the ideas to start to flow.

Yet this doesn’t mean that his work is abstract or out of touch. Amateur Architecture is deliberately small and its projects often local, scaled to fit the average person. “I build a ‘house’ instead of a ‘building’” he has said. “Architecture is a matter of everyday life.”

Before he and his wife, architect Lu Wenyu set up their studio in Hangzhou in the late nineties – a city renowned for its natural beauty and art heritage – Wang Shu spent almost a decade studying widely and working with craftsmen “out of the system,” as he called it, mainly renovating old buildings.

This seems to have been the bedrock of his success; he has an uncanny ability to understand and stretch the boundaries of those who build. It has also given him a lifelong love of China’s historic structures, and a dislike of his country’s liberalism with the wrecking ball.

Wang Shu’s landscapes therefore strike a deft balance between the past and the future. They manage to root down deeply into the Chinese cultural context, and yet feel forward-looking in the way that they use technology, or address space.  His first major project for example, the award-winning Library of Whenzheng College at Suzhou University, is strikingly modern but keeps with Suzhou’s gardening traditions. Since these dictate that buildings between water and mountains should be discreet, he designed nearly half of the library to sit underground.

This sense of heritage and handicraft is often expressed through material choices. The architect likes to use brick or tiles rescued from demolished hutongs (traditional courtyard houses), or material sourced in the area.

He resurrected two million such tiles in his renowned designs for a campus belonging to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. His imposing Ningbo History Museum, modeled in part on an ancient Chinese fortress, works traditional masonry into a unique collage effect, to enrich a fascinatingly modern, off kilter-looking structure.

He may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay.

Though he maintains a relatively low profile, Wang Shu is in demand as a teacher. He was the first Chinese architect to hold a prestigious visiting professor post at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the US last year, and spends much of his time at the architecture school of the China Academy of Art, where he is now the dean.

From here he approaches architecture as an advocate too, often speaking out against the “professionalized, soulless” nature of the profession, and urging younger Chinese architects to work locally and more slowly, with an eye towards history.

In the 1980s Wang Shu caused a stir at a conference by claiming that Chinese architects were simply people who knew how to draw, but who didn’t necessarily think while doing so. While he believes that this has changed, he laments that still, the wider Chinese public” often think of a building as just a container whose functions can change at will.”

He therefore calls himself a scholar, craftsmen and architect, in that order – and with each project, is on a mission to pass on knowledge and broaden horizons. This starts with his own office staff; he recently sent his team home for a full month to prepare for work on three museums. “They all had homework assignments: books to read on French philosophy, Chinese paintings to study or movies to watch,” he remembers. “When we all got back together we had discussions  – then began to work on the projects.”

Many of his peers approve. At only 49 Wang Shu holds a series of awards, from China’s Architecture Arts Award to the French Gold Medal from the Academy of Architecture, and he exhibits worldwide.

Architectural icon, Zaha Hadid, has praised his work for its sculptural power, and the ‘stimulating’ and ‘transformative’ way he uses ancient materials.  Veteran Chinese architect Yang Ho Chan meanwhile, also on the Pritzker jury, was gratified by the way he “shows that architecture in China is more than the mass production of market-driven banality and the reproduction of the exotic.”

Wang Shu’s recognition by the Pritzker jury is a nod to China’s big new role in developing global architectural ideals, and the way that the profession should approach for example, the problems arising from rapid urbanization.

His win praises an architecture that is less about iconic forms and brash statements, and more about buildings that are close to people, their hearts and their histories. In other words, just the kind of anti-hero that we need right now.