A few hours before he was officially announced the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate and the first China-based architect to be so acknowledged, Wang Shu, 48, was just another architect professor on the schedule to give a lecture to the department of architecture and urban design at UCLA. Describing himself as an artist as well as an architect, Shu sat down with AN contributor Jonathan Louie to discuss his “way” of design.
Wang Shu lives and practices in Hangzhou, China, where he established Amateur Architecture Studio with his wife Lu Wenyu in 1997. In contrast to the globe-trotting Chinese "avant-garde," Wang Shu explores the rich legacy of China’s intellectual, sculptural, and architectural history, and ties his research closely to a simple formal language that emphasizes regional culture and astonishingly beautiful but imperfect craftsmanship.
As an architect you’ve cast yourself as someone who prefers to practice in the region in which you live. Was there a turning point or event in your career that influenced that decision and your perception of architecture?
Wang Shu: For Chinese architects, the question is: how can we make a Chinese modern architecture? Not just a modern architecture, but China's modern architecture. It’s an interesting question because we do have a Chinese architecture. It's a learned and copied modern architecture from the Western world, but there is no relation to our local life.
In school, I did some independent work very early on. For example, as a student, I worked on my first building, which was finished in 1985, and I designed my first independent project in 1989 [a youth center for a small town in Hainang]. In this way, I received professional architectural experience. Although I could do good architecture, it wasn’t really what I wanted. I realized that it's not just about good architecture, but about the best way to design and to construct. It was a more basic question.
So the 1990’s were a very important time. It was a turning point. I completely took myself out of the professional system and took time with workers, questioning materials together with them. I did a lot of renovation work for old buildings. It was a rich experience because any time you design something in this field, it’s important to see that there are some things that have existed before you. It’s not just designing on an empty piece of paper or on an empty site. You have to wonder how you can create something that takes the past and turns it into the future.
When you do a renovation for a building you have to touch the materials. It’s not just the materials, but it’s the way the materials change with time, the weather, or with people’s lives. You have to design new things that can co-exist. So now when I design a new building, even on an empty site, my way is very similar to a renovation.
An important aspect of your work is the emphasis on authenticity, recycled materials, and craft. Can you talk about those interests of yours in relationship to the slick mass-produced high-rise construction in the China today?
Usually I like to talk about real things, and realities. I prefer to talk about natural materials that aren’t artificial. It’s not just about an interest in recycled materials. But if you think you are a modern architect or a contemporary architect you should be critiquing reality. Maybe in the next 10 years I’ll use other kinds of materials. But in the past 10 years, I felt there was too much demolition and I wanted to propose an answer to that. Of course this is about attitude. On the other side, using this material has led to an architectural way—the craftsman's skills.
Is this a critique of the state of architecture in China?
Yes. In China I think architecture is important because in modern times it plays a big role. Architects design so many buildings at such a large scale. The size means that it can totally change people's lifestyles. Who gave you this power? How do you think about how you can control and handle this power? What is the meaning to you? Those are very important things. If you just think that you are an engineer and you’re going to create a surface for people without thinking about how the surface can change peoples' lives, it could really destroy people’s lives.
Only once did I design a high-rise building. I wanted to approach the design as a high-rise building that used many small buildings collected together.
You're talking about the Vertical Courtyard Project in Hangzhou?
Yes. It’s a simple idea. I wanted even those people living 30 meters high to still feel like they were living in a small house where they could live around a small courtyard and plant their own trees. From below they can tell people on the ground that “those are my trees and that’s my house.” It provides an identity for people to feel like it’s their own house. It’s more than just blank windows in apartment buildings that can’t separate neighborhoods. It’s a basic right for people.
Your design process seems similar to Chinese Landscape painting. For example, when you drew the Xiangshan Campus in Hangzhou you drew the project all at once. Is this a typical approach?
It’s not just an abstract concept to talk about the countryside. In fact the countryside includes many things for me. I spent a long time researching traditional landscape painting. It means that you can control a large-scale landscape in a spatial way. The Hangzhou Campus was my test project. It was very successful, but for another project, there may be another way to do it. Every time I like performing different experiments.
It’s not enough to say that I have a good education and I know how to design. You should talk about it not as designing something, but instead asking, “how should I design?” It’s a more basic question. How do you ask the question? The way is more important than the design itself. It’s my way, and it’s very simple.
What does the Pritzker Prize mean for you and for architects in China?
Especially for young architects, this prize encourages them to do more experimental work—because the fact is, it’s not easy. In China we have many projects, but only a few good projects. Good architecture is not just design, but I think it's closer to a struggle. It’ll give them more self-confidence.
For me, it has another importance. Originally I wanted to stop for two years, to have time with my wife and time to raise our son together. I worked too much over the past 10 years. My son is 10 years old now, but now with the prize, maybe this means I have to do more things and more design. But I still want to spend more time with my son.
If you keep the feeling in your heart pure, people will like your building. If you really do good design, you will find that your building will smile. Because the building comes from your heart, and it really gets a good feeling from life, and people can feel it. If you just work hard, and worry because you want a good building, people can feel that the building is a little nervous. So it’s very important to keep your heart in the right way.