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Wang Shu meets the press after winning the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, in 2012.   © (Imaginechina via AP Images)
Agents of Change 2017

Wang Shu -- Shaping cities and villages of the future

Acclaimed architect seeks an alternative to gigantic, soulless high-rises

SHANGHAI -- On stage, Wang Shu carries himself with confidence, whether he is speaking in English or Mandarin. He is accustomed to making public appearances and to being the center of attention. 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, a question he frequently asks before concluding that great contemporary Chinese architecture can only be achieved 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.

He values craftsmanship, striking exteriors and pragmatic interiors, and the combination of modernity and tradition.

Place and memory

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 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 he is dean of the School of Architecture and where his studio is located, were cited as two of his most outstanding works.

Of the 14 projects referred to in the prize announcement, 13 were constructed together with Lu. After receiving the Pritzker award, Wang said that 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 noted.

While Lu works behind the scenes, Wang presents the studio's work and vision to a wider audience.

Traditional Chinese architecture and art, including old Chinese landscape paintings, are among his main inspirations in making contemporary architecture in China more diverse, Wang 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," Wang told the audience, adding that it is a fiendishly difficult fight to win: More than 120 Chinese cities have a population of more than one 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, one hand holding the microphone, the other tucked into the pocket of his black trousers, which matched his black changshan shirt and his neatly trimmed black hair.

Family home demolished

When Wang was a child, his family moved to Beijing from Urumqi, the capital of western China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where he was born. In Beijing, his mother was a teacher and his father worked as a musician and amateur carpenter. He had fond memories of the home and of the drawings he scribbled on the walls. But when he visited the neighborhood after a ceremony honoring his Pritzker award, he found that their old, distinctively Beijing home had been demolished to make way for a new construction project.

He sees similarly brutal development in the countryside. "If we are not careful, in 10 years' time, everything will be gone," he said at the Royal Academy.

But identical skyscrapers that only serve the purpose of adding vertical space to cities cannot be the future, he believes. 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 Wencun village, 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 - natural and recycled 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, each representing different regions and their cultural characteristics. Wang hopes that cities will learn from the countryside, and from villages like Wencun.

But even if the approach to urban construction does not change, soulless high-rises will not pass the test of time, he believes.

'Inspiring teacher'

"I believe that all enormous objects, no matter why they were built in the first place, are meant to break apart, because the common people are growing more and more conscious of them," he told the Chinese-language A Plus magazine in 2014. In Hangzhou, Wang is seeing this dissatisfaction with such interchangeable buildings in the eyes of his students, who describe him as an "inspiring teacher."

Wang takes his students to small 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.

"I have considerable ambition when it comes to education, and I want to bring out a Chinese way of architecture education systematically," he said in A Plus, criticizing the fact that most architects see their work as a technical service, "overlooking social, ethical and philosophical problems."

Not far from his campus, on the outskirts of Hangzhou, dozens of housing units are under construction, epitomes of tastless, 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 one 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.

Shaping the future of China's rural and urban landscapes is both challenging and appealing in the world's most populous country. While Wang has described himself as "just a local architect," the Pritzker jury is certain that he will play a significant role in the development of architectural ideas. By 2050, he envisions that all skyscrapers will have disappeared because people will have grown sick of them -- perhaps also because Wang knows he will have helped trigger this change.

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

<h2 style="margin-top:0;"> <a id="a_title" href="" style="font-family:georgia,times new roman,times,serif;font-size:26px;color:#000;">Meet other Agents of Change</a> <p id="p_lede" style="font-family:georgia,times new roman,times,serif;font-size:16px;line-height: 21px;">Business people, innovators, educators and artists to shape new era</p> </td> </h2>

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