The so-called Nobel Prize for Architecture mostly goes to quirky types like Frank Gehry, a headliner who justifies the publicity needs of the sponsoring hotel chain. Not this year! Wang Shu (Who?!) a 48 year old autodidact from Hangzhou is the first Chinese citizen so honored.
I.M.Pei had long been an American when he got the Pritzker. He got first degree at the Nanjing Institute of Technology at 33. When he got his M.A. from Nanjing in 1988, he didn’t start work as an architect. He started research on the environment and architecture in relation to the renovation of old buildings--at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. Almost a year later he went to work on his first project—the design of a 3600 square foot Youth Center for the small town of Haining (near Hangzhou) completed in 1990.
For the next decade he worked with craftsmen to get actual experience in building—without the responsibility of designing structures. In 1997 he and his wife, Lu Wenyu, founded their professional practice in Hangzhou, with beguiling name of Amateur Architecture Studio. (He explained that strange name, ”For myself, being an artisan or a craftsman, is an amateur or almost the same thing.”)
In making the award, Thomas J. Pritzker observed that “the role that China will play in the development of architectural Ideals” is crucial because the question of the proper relation of present to past is particularly timely, for the recent process of urbanization in China invites debate as to whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should only look to the future.” (NYTimes, 2/28/2012)
Cannily, Wang has recycled the pieces of abandoned structures to create stunningly new replacements. For example, in designing the Xingshan campus of the Chinese Academy of art in Hangzhou he reused two million tiles from demolished traditional houses. “Everywhere you can see,” Wang argued, ”they don’t care about the materials. They just want new buildings, they just want new things. I think the material is not just about materials. Inside it has the people’s experience, memory—many things inside. So I think it’s the architect to do something about it.”
At first, his musician father and school librarian mother encouraged Wang who wanted to be an artist or writer to study science and engineering. He compromised by studying architecture. The humanism shows in his recycled Chinese materials and history. “My work is more thoughtful than simply ‘built’---the “handicraft aspect” of his work is very important to him. He scorns much of the “professionalized, soulless architecture as practiced today.”
“Wang says he approaches design as a traditional Chinese painter would; he studies the settings—whether cities, valleys or mountains—for about a week as the design materializes in his mind.” (NYT,op.cit.) For a visual treat, see his most significant achievements. His stuff is gorgeously idiosyncratic, but almost impossible to put into prose.
Now if we can only get the Pritzker happy narchitects to think as freshly as Wang. He is now the director of the Chinese Academy of Art. Lucky students!
Another version of this essay is published at Broad Street Review.