December 29, 2016 12:00 pm JST

Wang Shu puts the soul back in China's skylines

Acclaimed architect evokes the past while looking to the future

DENISE HRUBY, Contributing writer

Wang Shu meets the press after winning the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, in 2012. © (Imaginechina via AP Images)

SHANGHAI On stage, Wang Shu carries himself with confidence, no matter if he is speaking in English or Mandarin. At 53, he is China's most renowned architect, has earned numerous international awards and has taught hundreds of students about the art of architecture.

His refrain -- "What's the future of our cities?" -- is at the center of his work and a question he frequently asks before concluding that great contemporary Chinese architecture can be achieved only if it is linked to the past.

In a country where rapid population growth and urbanization have put pressure on city developers, "soulless" high-rises, as he puts it, and identical residential housing blocks have become the norm.

The work of Wang and his team at Amateur Architecture Studio, which he founded with his wife, Lu Wenyu, also an acclaimed architect, stands against this trend.

Often using recycled materials, he plans courtyards with trees, as well as buildings that extend over lakes, always considering the dialogue that each of his designs will form with the environment that surrounds it.

Wang's architecture "opens new horizons while at the same time resonates with place and memory," the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize said of Wang in 2012, when he became the first Chinese national to win architecture's most prestigious accolade. (Another Pritzker winner, I.M. Pei, was born in China but had become a U.S. citizen well before receiving the prize in 1983.) "His buildings evoke the past, without making direct references to it," the jury said.

The Ningbo Museum, described as an "urban icon," and the China Academy of Art, Xiangshan Campus, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, where Wang is dean of the School of Architecture and his studio is located, were cited as two of his most outstanding works.

Of the 14 projects mentioned in the prize announcement, 13 were constructed together with Lu. After receiving the Pritzker award, Wang said he felt his wife also deserved the prize, but added that he had never raised his concerns with the jury. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais in 2014, Lu said she had never wanted international accolades. "In China, you lose your life if you become famous. I want a life, and I prefer to spend it with my son," she said.

Traditional Chinese architecture and art, including old Chinese landscape paintings, are among Wang's main inspirations in making contemporary architecture in China more diverse, he said in July at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he gave the annual architecture lecture.

"We have to rebuild the relations between buildings and nature," he told the audience, adding that it is a fiendishly difficult fight to win: More than 120 Chinese cities have a population of more than 1 million, and to create space for this rapidly growing number of urban dwellers, nearly 90% of historic buildings have been destroyed in the past 20 years.

"I spent my childhood in Beijing, but now, it's almost a new city. All the memories from the city and the people have gone," he told the audience in London. He sees similarly brutal development in the countryside. "If we are not careful, in 10 years' time, everything will be gone."

Wang is already working on role models for a new order.

In 2012, he started implementing a village regeneration project that he had been researching for years. In the village of Wencun, west of Shanghai, the new brick houses fit neither the original vernacular settlements nor the landscape, so Wang decided to refurbish and reconstruct them. He also built a bridge, pavilions for community gatherings and 14 new houses. Bamboo, clay, limestone and wood were used -- materials that came at a much lower cost than conventional construction materials and made each house unique.

He is now working on six to seven new model villages. Wang hopes that cities will learn from the countryside, and from villages like Wencun.

Wang takes his students to cities such as Suzhou, known for its classic gardens, where they spend their time practicing calligraphy, learning about local handicrafts and the way people use materials in everyday life.

Not far from his campus, on the outskirts of Hangzhou, dozens of housing units are under construction, epitomes of soulless, mass-market architecture.

Marco Polo, visiting in the late 13th century, described Hangzhou as the largest city of his time, with a population of more than 1 million. And yet, he also described it as the most beautiful of China's cities. To Wang, that is proof that although a large population often cancels out architectural beauty in China, it does not have to be that way.

When he looks at the countryside, he told London's Royal Academy, there is still some hope. "We still have a chance."

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