The Local Architect / Wang Shu

Ningbo Historic Museum / Wang Shu © Iwan Baan 

China must be going crazy.

In recent years, the growth of China has been incredible.  We have often likened the massive surge of projects in the country to the explosive levels of architectural experimentation in Dubai. OMA, Hadid, Holl, Foster, Morphosis – strong powerhouses of architecture – all seeking to help China meet the demands of its emerging world power position by springing from the basis of a historically isolated culture and leaping to craft a more globalized image for the country.  Such an image creates the desire for an architecture which can continually out shine itself as it challenges traditional materiality, scale and contextual relationships in China’s modern cities such as Shanghai and Beijing,  Hangzhou and West Kowloon.

Perhaps, that is precisely why many have not heard of Wang Shu and Amateur Architecture Studio. And, perhaps, that is precisely why this Pritzker award carries such weight.

Shu is a local architect.

In an age where the goal is to offer a distinct, individualized style, Shu has shied away from such a prerogative.  Ironically, with his manner of seamlessly meshing the contemporary with the cultural, innovation with tradition, Shu’s work has come to define itself.  The work is infused with fresh material juxtapositions and an expressive quality grounded in traditional formal proportions and scale.  The Pritzker jury explained, “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 look only toward the future. As with any great architecture, Wang Shu’s work is able to transcend that debate, producing  an architecture that is timeless, deeply rooted in its context and yet universal.”

Wang Shu has often said that “…Architecture is spontaneous for the simple reason that architecture is a matter of everyday life. When I say that I build a ‘house’ instead of a ‘building’, I am thinking of something that is closer to life, everyday life. When I named my studio ‘Amateur Architecture’, it was to emphasize the spontaneous and experimental aspects of my work, as opposed to being ‘official and monumental’.”

We have shared great coverage to provide a closer understanding of the work of Wang Shu.  We particularly enjoy the Ningbo History Museum as Shu’s distinctive manner of integrating discarded elements allows the building to not only physically reference the history of building in China, but also breathes life into the structure.  The architecture becomes a physical memory of the past and carries a high emotional content, as juror Alejandro Aravena notesbecause if there is something rather clear in Wang Shu’s architecture, it is that it is moving, powerful and that it works even at the level of feelings.”

Although some may identify China with the flashy images of a bustling metropolis, Wang Shu has explained his connection to the historical side of China – the smaller regions where cultural identity still runs strong and traditions are rooted in an appreciation for nature.   Such regions are the authentic China for Shu, and his work seeks to reference and praise those virtues.

It is the strength of the Pritzker jury, and the dynamics of our field, to appreciate talent, be it from someone in the industry for one year or several decades.  Talent is not defined by years of experience or an exhaustive list of built projects, but rather, talent is rooted in the ability to make architecture more than just a building.  The emotional and cultural quality of Shu’s work has proven his capabilities, and we look forward with anticipation to see his next move.

Cite: Cilento, Karen. "The Local Architect / Wang Shu" 28 Feb 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=212424>
  • John

    Has the person who wrote this article visited one of Wang Shu’s buildings?

  • Michael F.

    If talent isn’t defined by years of experience or lists of built projects, how come the AIA makes young architects work for years in a laboring situation of penny pinching clients, terrible contractors and fairly rigid office hierarchies before we have a chance to “showcase” our talents?

  • Karen Cilento

    Hi Michael,
    Just because the AIA may support the practices you mention above doesn’t mean that’s the right course of action. There are many talented individuals who are defined as “young” in their field and the system just doesn’t allow them to be recognized… does that mean we are defining talent wrong, or does that mean that the system is wrong?

    • Michael F.

      Karen:

      No, we are not defining talent wrong, and I don’t mean to use the awarding of the Pritzker as a forum for debating the flaws of the AIA guidelines. I do think that great talent should be recognized, and Wang Shu is a very talented architect. Without re-stating everything that has been said in the last 36 hours, he has a unique ability to create transcending spaces and connect the materials and construction to the identity of his work.

      However, I feel the prize is very much attached to the longevity of a career. Most (if not all) of the winners have been pillars of the architectural community for multiple decades. This is very much in line with the traditional model of success in architecture, one of working towards recognition over many decades, either for yourself or multiple firms.

      I don’t doubt that Wang Shu would have won the award at some point during his career, had he not won it this year. I just feel there is a strong disagreement between this expectation of achieving recognition in our field, how it shares a strong connection with past winners of the Pritzker, and the selection of Wang Shu.

  • Scott E.

    I agree with Michael F. The Pritzker is generally seen as a lifetime achievement award, so it’s weird to see it go to someone in the relatively early stages of his career. It’s almost as if Bjarke Ingels won the Pritzker – sure he’s been exceptionally successful as a designer and has a unique vision for architecture, but he just hasn’t contributed enough for long enough to really deserve it.
    The prize typically goes to people who have made significant contributions to the global discourse on architecture, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Wang Shu. So I’d be curious to know what his reputation is like in China. Even though he is relatively unknown outside of China, maybe in Chinese design circles he has been hugely influential.

    • dashen

      He is indeed hugely influential in China, though most of us are also as surprised as you when get the news. We see Pritzker a great honor and this time is something more than lifetime achievement award. It is encouraging for local architects.it probably contains political purpose that pushes public appreciate more of another way to build “new China”

      • Jun

        “He is indeed hugely influential in China.” Are you kidding?

  • China!?

    The decision sounds political.

  • Chang

    As a Chinese student learning architecture, I have to say that it is not appropriate to award Wangshu this prize. The reason is, just like others said, that he is still in his early stage of his architecture practice. And from my point of view, he is still doing the ‘experiment’ to find his way to approach critical regionalism architecture in China. But I think the price means more than a life-long achievement of an individual this time. China’s experiencing the most delirious urbanization with cities of ‘elitist’ modern architecture, which makes China lose its culture identity. Wangshu struggled to evoke the public and government’s awareness of the modernized and flatterned Chinese cities for years. The price given to Wangshu means the positive recognition from the judgement panel to encourage more and more Chinese local architects to start rethinking the ‘international’. So I think it’s the most inappropriate but the most meaningful price.

    • Reinhard04

      Dear Chang .. i hope u wont get arrested for that ;-)

      • Ke Song

        lol. China is quite open now!

      • Ke Song

        haha

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