© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Wang Shu lauded for modern traditional design

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 6, 2012 - St. Louis was at the epicenter of global architecture last week. Wang Shu won the prestigious Pritzker Prize two days before his lecture at the Sam Fox School of Architecture at Washington University. Awarded to just one architect a year, the Pritzker Prize is the highest honor in Western architecture. An established star architect usually wins, but every so often the prize makes a relatively unknown architect world famous. That’s what happened to Wang Shu. Before last week, he did not even have a Wikipedia page.

Wang Shu was an interesting choice. For starters, he was the first Chinese national chosen to be a Pritzker Prize winner. And the award turned him into a superhero in China. At his lecture last Wednesday evening, hundreds of young Chinese exchange students thronged into hall. They made up the large majority of the audience, greeting Wang with extraordinary reverence and awe.

Holding their IPhones in the air to record the historic moment for those at home, the students were abuzz. China achieved another measure of global success, and they witnessed Wang’s first lecture as a Pritzker Prize winner.

Americans may not understand why Wang’s success would thrill college students. A Chinese scholar, living in St Louis, put it this way: “Our 5,000 year old culture has always been very precious to us. The Chinese feel this deeply in their hearts. The Chinese people feel that China must thrive so that our great culture will continue to survive. Wang’s Pritzker Prize means that the rest of the world will listen carefully to his philosophy. His success means that the Chinese culture has a better chance of surviving.“

There is another curious aspect about the 2012 Pritzker Prize. Wang is considered an architectural renegade in China. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Wang’s design practice is steeped in the ancient traditions of Chinese culture. Wang’s university stripped him of his degree when they realized that he was building modern architecture using ancient techniques and recycled materials.

Ironically, that event could have been the start of his trajectory to the Pritzker. “Chinese dissidents frequently have their degrees taken away,” said the local Chinese scholar. “This has a reverse effect on their social standing. Many Chinese believe that a person who loses their degree must be important. “

An outcast of sorts, Wang spent years scrutinizing traditional buildings. Noting a philosophical satisfaction in the untrained builders who built traditional buildings, he set out to replicate that poetic satisfaction. First, he started each day with a calligraphy exercise.

“My Japanese grandfather used to encourage me to do Japanese brush painting,” said the esteemed St Louis designer, Kiku Obata. “He implied that the practice would give me a connection to my Japanese culture as my hand moved the brush over the representational symbols. He said that brush painting would put me in touch with nature.”

Wang put a poetic atmosphere in his office space, too. He created a workshop rather than a slick corporate headquarters. Cheerfully chaotic, the staff photo showed 10 staff, bundled in coats, Wang included. The Pritzker Prize winner has his drawing desk in the center of the workroom. No corner office for him. No computer either.

“The computer causes repetition,” Wang complained. Sheets of calligraphy, hand sketches and notes covered his desk. Wang’s firm works very closely with builders, even working on site with the craftsman from time to time.

“The materials have been touched by a thousand hands. If you build it right, you will feel a big change in your heart.” The contemplative architect said. “If tradition is just preserved, that means it has died. Real tradition exists when the values and feeling are still alive.”

Collaboration with uneducated artisans is an essential part of their research. When Wang Shu and his wife Lu Wenyu opened their practice in 1997 in the city of Hangzhou, they gave a wink to the supposedly untrained builders in countryside. They named their firm “Amateur Architecture Studio.” Wang explained, “Chinese architects live in large cities where they design large urban projects. They do not design traditional buildings in the countryside. Traditional Chinese buildings are built by local residents who do not use architects or architectural drawings. “

For Wang and his wife, there was an urgency in their quest to discover the value and feelings in traditional Chinese architecture. Much of the traditional Chinese architecture was destroyed during their lifetimes. “In the past 30 years, China demolished over 90 percent of the traditional Chinese buildings. What is the real China? The real China is hard to grasp. It is a kind of super-reality. There have been so many changes.”

The changes included the landscape. Quietly, he showed pictures of a mountain that had been chopped into pieces. Distressed, Wang and his wife vowed they would design architecture that would wake up Chinese developers and Chinese architects.

Their modern buildings continually remind the visitor that a majestic landscape surrounds them. Waves of stairs rise and fall along the exterior walls of the buildings they designed for the Art Academy of Hangzhou. The waves mimic the rise and fall of the mountains in the near distance. The stairs are similar to the ones seen along the Great Wall of China.

For their design of the Ningbo History Museum, Wang and his wife were even more daring. They used recycled materials taken from the ruins of demolished traditional buildings. They layered old fragments as though they were strokes in a modern painting.

“People can find their memory there,” Wang said with pride. “Since it opened, nearly 10,000 people visit the museum every day. One woman told me that she had visited the museum five times because it was the only place that she could see and remember pieces of her old courtyard brick.”

St Louis is where Wang began his Pritzker life, but the main drama of his future will be in China. Along with the coveted Pritzker medal, comes a lifetime of walking the tight wire between architecture, geopolitics and fame. Within hours, in fact, international critics challenged the selection.

From The New Yorker, culture critic Jiayang Fan blogged: “For some Chinese at least, the question is less how the work is being judged but rather if it is being judged at all — that is, if a reward like the Pritzker represents nothing more than a veiled political reprimand or dressed-up directive from the West: ‘I don’t care what you build, but for the love of God, convince your countrymen to lead less stifling and more conscientious lives!’ ”

Luckily, Wang and his wife have support. They did not accidentally exhibit in seven European cities from 1999 through 2010. Visionary Chinese officials recognized the strength of Wang’s quest and selected him for three Venice Biennales plus a Hong Kong Biennale. In architecture math, 10 European exhibits plus 1 Manhattan exhibit equals 1 clear rising star. That’s true in any country, but it is especially true in China.

Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu’s Amateur Architecture Studio achieved what they set out to accomplish. Long-time students of ancient Chinese architectural traditions, they have become lyrical poets of modern architecture.

From 1983 through 1985, Wimsatt worked for I M Pei, the Chinese American architect who was the 5th winner of the Pritzker Prize.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.