Wang Shu, Wary of the New

At a time when China was bursting with an urge to cover buildings in shimmering silver and gray, Wang Shu, the first Chinese winner of the Pritzker Prize, was an architect who felt that changing tastes didn’t have to mean changing one’s sense of history.

In the 1990s, China went all-in for large-scale construction. Wang and his wife Lu Wenyu, also an architect, instead decided to lead a reclusive life in Hangzhou, in China’s Zhejiang province, famous for its landscape and history as a cultural center. The couple taught at the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts and built a garden in their fifty-square-meter home.

A professor in his department during his undergraduate days at Southeast University said, “Whenever you walked through the corridor, we all felt you weren’t a person walking there but a knife, a knife that brought with it cold wind. Everyone unconsciously avoided you.” In his sophomore year, he publicly announced to the teachers that no one could teach him. In his junior year, he read Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics until it was dog-eared. At twenty-four years of age, he penned a long article titled “The Crisis of Contemporary Chinese Architecture,” which criticized everyone from Liang Sicheng, a seminal figure in China’s modern architecture, to his own teachers. At his thesis defense, he announced, “China has an architect and a half. I’m one, and my teacher Ji Kang is the half.” His thesis passed unanimously, but Wang ultimately failed to get his degree.

In the summer of 2000, Wang completed his doctoral studies at the prestigious Tongji University, known for its top-ranking architecture program. The university, breaking its own rules, asked Wang to stay and teach, but he turned down the offer, deciding to become a teacher at the China Academy of Fine Arts.

Eleven years later, Wang, an honorary chair professor of Harvard University Graduate School of Design, recalled, “For me, Shanghai is not China, but Hangzhou is probably qualified to represent the uniqueness of China. My return to Hangzhou was a return to China.” Wang said that his response to being an architect was not to use outside or Western concepts, but to use things rooted locally to bring back the landscape-architectural system that once covered all of China.

Based on his architectural concepts and works including the China Academy of Art Xiangshan Campus, the Ningbo Museum in Zhejiang province, and the Suzhou University Wenzheng College Library in Jiangsu province, the forty-nine-year-old Wang in February received the Pritzker Architectural Prize, the “Nobel Prize of architecture.” He became only the second person of Chinese descent to win the prize. I.M. Pei was the first in 1983.

In the past, Wang won several other major international awards including the Venice Architecture Biennale Special Honor Award, the Schelling Architectural Practice Award in Germany, and the France School of Architecture Gold Medal.

Lord Peter Palumbo, chairman of the Pritzker selection committee, commented for the committee by saying China’s urbanization in recent years has set off a debate over whether architecture should be rooted in tradition or should look to the future. Wang’s works, he said, like any great buildings, transcended this debate. They are timeless works, he said, deeply rooted in context, and yet universal.

In the 1920s, Liang Sicheng, Chen Zhi, Tong Jun, Yang Yanbao, and other Chinese architects returned from studying in the West. Liang used Western architectural systems to arrange and study China’s wooden buildings. But Wang holds that Chinese architecture has its own cultural logic. “In his student days, Wang said that using only Western systems to understand Chinese architectural culture was a problem. The more important responsibility of Chinese architects is to set out from the context of Chinese architecture itself,” said Tong Ming, a classmate and friend of Wang and associate professor at Tongji University’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

As president of Architectural Art of the China Academy of Fine Arts College and a doctoral tutor, Wang’s teaching is unique. In the curriculum, he emphasizes woodworking, weaving, and other traditional arts and crafts and often takes students off campus to observe nature.

Wang says that he is primarily a scholar, and then an architect. When he and his wife founded Amateur Architectural Studio, they were focusing on “a kind of philosophy that was belittled in China for a century.” He respects architects like Tong Jun and Feng Jizhong as spiritual masters and this also determines his friends in architectural circles.

Liu Yanpeng, a student of Wang’s, said, “Wang took our entire class to Suzhou, and at night, he had us copy calligraphy books in the hotel. During the day, we often sat in a circle on the stone railings or the ground at Canglang Pavilion and listened to Wang and his friends chat about architecture.”

Wang said he is particularly fond of visiting a garden in Suzhou in which he was struck with the urge to keep traditional building styles intact. One day he noticed that there was no transition between where the houses stood and the water. People there drank tea and strolled about, not noticing the existence of the buildings. The buildings seemed to automatically conceal themselves in the garden, and visitors were fully integrated in the landscape. He found that at a distance from the lake, there was a pavilion opposite a building. On the buildings located on this shore, except for the walls and the roof, all the doors and windows could be dismantled for the comfort of inhabitants, making the buildings’ surface indefinite.

With the sense that such huge buildings were mutable came a sudden realization for Wang. This was the source of his inspiration for the China Academy of Art Xiangshan Campus looking back on Qingshan and the Suzhou University Wenzheng College Library, which sits on a lake with a backdrop of mountains.

Wang now continues to both challenge and accommodate the styles of China’s traditional literati with modern building designs.

In a speech given at UCLA this year, Wang said, “In 1950 Hangzhou looked like Paris. Now it looks like Singapore. People are beginning to ask, ‘What is the aim of all this development?’”

Chen Yi is a special correspondent to Caixin.