Kenneth Frampton On The Work of Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu

Kenneth Frampton On The Work of Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu

Until April 30th, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark is exhibiting the work of Wang Shu. The first in a new series of monographic exhibitions collectively titled "The Architect's Studio," this show of the work of the 2012 Pritzker Prize winner features an exhibition catalog that includes essays from Kenneth Frampton, Ole Bouman, Yiping Dong and Aric Chen. The following excerpt from the exhibition catalog, written by Kenneth Frampton, is republished here with the permission of the author and publisher.

The work of the Amateur Architecture Studio has come into being in categorical opposition to the recent, rapacious development that has engulfed large tracts of the Chinese continent, and which was first set in motion by Deng Xiaoping’s 1983 decision to open up the People’s Republic of China to foreign trade, first with special economic zones and later with regard to the entire country. Based in Hangzhou, Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu have witnessed firsthand the juggernaut of maximizing Chinese modernization from its impact on their own city. Three decades ago, Hangzhou had been expressly chosen by them as a desirable place in which to live and work, largely because of its venerable artistic traditions and its harmonious report with nature, symbolized for them by the virtually sacred West Lake, set in the very heart of the city and traversed, then as now, by the flat-bottomed boats plying across its surface. Wang Shu’s unique sensibility takes as its point of departure the equally panoramic tranquility of traditional Chinese painting. As Wang Shu has written:

“I am always amazed by these paintings when I see that the trees, the buildings and mountains are not just placed haphazardly... every building is laid out in a certain way in relation to the landscape and the trees, the direction it faces depending on the light and the features of the location, which make it suitable for human habitation.”

Amateur Architecture Studio. Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, 2008. Image © Iwan Baan. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

Wang Shu’s first excursus into the domain of the Chinese tradition came with his monumental Ningbo Museum, built in 2005, as if it were a vast concrete fortress; a cultural stronghold, as it were, set against the widely dispersed helter-skelter fabric of the new city. Wang Shu has referred to this building as a mountain and in this regard what is of the greatest consequence is the surface of the building which is comprised of massive canted reinforced concrete walls, the surface of which is partly clad in recycled terracotta and clay tiles. These are used as the permanent inner lining of the formwork so that when they are cast in position, they make up a randomly decorative revetment, subtly recalling the countless demolished buildings of which they were once constituent parts.

Amateur Architecture Studio, Regeneration of the Wencun village, 2016. Image © Iwan Baan. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

Wang Shu will use this ‘poetics of recycling’ as a means to engender a new language which is at once traditional and modern, the former stemming from the self-conscious revival of traditional building techniques through his collaboration with traditional artisans who are capable of transmitting to architects innumerable lost construction techniques, which he, in turn, is capable of transforming into an unprecedented expressive form, as in the case of the so-called tiled garden that he and Lu Wenyu built for the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006, a work composed out of some 60,000 tiles and 5,000 bamboo strips. Wang Shu informs us that he did not know, prior to the act of construction, how to resolve the edges of the tiled roof covering this work and that, in the event, the seam was worked out on the spot with the aid of a master craftsman.

Amateur Architecture Studio, Regeneration of the Wencun village, 2016. Image © Iwan Baan. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

The breakthrough that projected the Amateur Architecture Studio into a totally different scale and class of work was surely the state commission to design, virtually overnight, the twenty-five faculty buildings that now make up the Xiangshan Academy of Fine Arts, built between 2002 and 2007 on a rural site, situated some thirty minutes by car from the center of Hangzhou. In retrospect it is possible to see this highly topographic assembly as a kind of Piranesian world en miettes, that is to say as a cacophonic requiem for the willfully destroyed Chinese vernacular which certainly never existed in this form. Hence seemingly the ironically meandering ramps and staircases are surely in excess of any reasonable circulatory requirements. These are suspended beneath over-hanging eaves as a kind of vertical labyrinth, an indecipherable and enigmatic sculptural inscription written against the sheer face of a series of artificial mountains. These last are often graced by characteristic switchback roofs rising and falling in a wave-like rhythm, insistently evocative of the traditional Chinese roof. These répétition différente, combined with elegiac stretches of canalized water are randomly arranged, cheek by jowl, around a small hill in the center of the campus. Of recent date, a public core has been added to the campus in the form of a reception center compressing a restaurant, conference facilities and a small number of guest rooms for temporary accommodation. Apart from entry ramps and passerelles, the ubiquitous staircases appear once again, only now they have been rotated through 90 degrees and they cut across the section to penetrate into the heart of the building between the innumerable cross walls of which the building is composed. From time to time these stairs become interwoven through interim landings passing from one slot of space to the next as they continue to climb up into the overarching, cavernous timber roof covering the entire structure, and these in extremis climb up onto the roof itself; the architect ultimately justifying this soaring labyrinthic itinerary in terms of Piranesi’s Carceri. As we have already noted, the body of the building itself is made up of concrete framed cross walls, while the infill walls themselves are made of red and yellow adobe, the different colored earth being taken from two different local quarries.

Amateur Architecture Studio. China Academy of Art Xiangshan Campus, Hangzhou, 2007. Image © Iwan Baan. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

The crowning feature of this entire complex is a timber roof, as monumental without as within, assembled as a repetition of wire-cable reinforced timber trusses, stacked close together as this trope had been first explored by Lu Wenyu in the Zhongshan Street Museum, treated as an integral part of the street itself. In the academy, the roof is similarly raised off the cross walls by transverse steel girders, which in their turn deliver the load down onto the framed walls via short cylindrical steel columns. There is possibly a distant reference at this juncture to the timber-trussed and tiled roof of Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio Museum, Verona, of 1959.

Amateur Architecture Studio Wa Shan Guesthouse / China Academy of Art Xiangshan Campus, Hangzhou, 2013 Image © Iwan Baan. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

The urban dimension of the Amateur Architecture Studio first emerges in 2006 with their reconstruction of Zhongshan Street, a one kilometer stretch within a six-kilometer pre-existing axial street running through the center of downtown Hangzhou. It says everything about Wang Shu’s prestige, even before the award of the much converted Pritzker Prize in 2012, that he was able to insist on a number of absolute conditions before accepting to design this piece of urban renewal. These were: (1) that he be granted a six month study period prior to beginning to work on the overall design, (2) that the inhabitants of the street not be moved for any reason during the restoration (3) that there will be no kitsch replication of pre-existing buildings in relation to the street, and finally (4) that the plan be adhered to for the length of one kilometer. Two particular elements gave a unique character to this wide pedestrian street; in the first instance, the maintenance of a stone bound ornamental water course throughout its length, and, in the second, a large undulating trussed timber roof poised on top of load-bearing, stone walls enclosing the forecourt of a subterranean museum. This roof is, in the main, a masterwork of Lu Wenyu, inasmuch as she has become, over the years, an autodidact master carpenter in tensegrity timber construction. This roof consists of closely packed adjacent timber trusses, which are linked together statically by the thrust and counterthrust of adjacent timber frames.

Amateur Architecture Studio, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, 2007. Image © Iwan Baan. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

The award of the Pritzker Prize to Wang Shu in 2012 had an immediate impact on his status in China and, on his return from the award ceremony, he was inundated with commissions, most of which he refused in order to maintain the relatively modest size of his office. At the same time, the prestige of the award elevated his status within the Chinese hierarchy, with the result that he and his partner Lu Wenyu were able to design and realize works which would otherwise have been unattainable. Among these is their ongoing restoration of the Wencun Village in Fuyang, situated an hour and a half by car from Hangzhou. This ongoing project may be seen as a demonstration of the possibility of resurrecting a traditional village in such a way as to bridge the gap between restoring a decayed historical fabric and upgrading both the amenities and the spatial capacity of each house.

Amateur Architecture Studio Zhongshan Road Renovation, Hangzhou, 2009. Image © Iwan Baan. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

As a consequence of the desire to commission the Amateur Architecture Studio with the design of a museum, the mayor of the municipality of Fuyang was obliged to make a village available to the architects as an experiment in restoration, having Wang Shu made this a precondition of accepting the commission. Although Wencun was not on the government’s list of villages to be restored, it evidently possessed a traditional linear structure which could be rearticulated through the renewal and reconstruction of its iterative form, both in terms of the typical house-type and its rhythmical reiteration. More of an incremental rebuilding of a village than a restoration in the usual sense, this undertaking involved bending the rules and exceeding the normative budget allocated by the government for the building of new agrarian dwellings. If the architects had adhered to the official standards they would have had to design to the standard of no more than 120 square meters per house, whereas they wanted their new houses to be twice the size of the old; that is to say, 250 square meters per unit. This was necessary in order to provide adequate spaces for living, dining and cooking, plus three bedrooms and a bathroom on each floor, with a utility room that would be used either for storage or for the breeding of silkworms, which is still a mainstay of the village economy. At the same time the architects wanted to maintain the traditional type-form of an entrance hall facing onto a courtyard as an honorific space traditionally devoted to the celebration of marriages and funerals, along with the time-honored worship of gods and ancestors.

Amateur Architecture Studio Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, 2008. Image © Iwan Baan. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

The deeper polemical significance of this phased reconstruction stemmed from the architect’s use of traditional local materials such as stone, bamboo and rammed earth, all of which were proscribed by the government. At the same time, in order to meet the current seismic regulations, these materials had to be integrated and sustained through the use of an in-situ reinforced concrete frame. Moreover, in the interests of energy conservation, double walling had to be employed throughout. Even so, all the interior courtyards are lined with wood in accordance with local tradition, while the exteriors of the houses are generally faced in a black tile imported from Southern China. What is truly remarkable and refreshing about this entire undertaking is the way in which a new hybrid language has been brought into being that is, as I have already suggested, neither modern nor traditional.

Installation shot from the exhibition. Material sample, detail. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

One may well ask, what does this entire enterprise signify exactly, particularly when its practice is established under the rubric of the amateur, a term that traditionally means the pursuit of an activity for the sheer love of it, and without asking for any remuneration in return? Clearly this altruistic idea qualifies the concept of architectural practice as a civil profession, and its critical significance surely resides in the fact that it is a categorical repudiation of the way in which both foreign and Chinese architects have participated in the wholesale destruction of traditional Chinese building culture for the immediate rewards of money and fame. Of necessity, the Amateur Architecture Studio must also work on commission in order to survive, but this, as the title indicates, is not its primary aim.

Amateur Architecture Studio, Ningbo History Museum, 2008. Image © Iwan Baan. Image Courtesy of Louisiana

Kenneth Frampton (born 1930), is a British architect, critic, historian and the Ware Professor of Architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, New York. He has been a permanent resident of the USA since the mid-1980s. Frampton is regarded one of the world’s leading architecture historians of modernist architecture. He has contributed decisively to the development of the concept of ‘critical regionalism.’ His latest books are Five North American Architects: An Anthology (2012) and Genealogy of Modern Architecture: A Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form (2014). 

Wang Shu Amateur Architecture Studio

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Cite: Kenneth Frampton. "Kenneth Frampton On The Work of Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu" 23 Mar 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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