Architect Wang Shuo was born in 1981 in Beijing. He grew up in the family of neuroscientists and was particularly good in math, wining the national math Olympics in high school. But instead of going into computer science, as did many of his classmates, he decided to study architecture. The decision was entirely intuitive. He earned his Bachelor of Architecture from Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2004. The Master’s degree was acquired from Rice University in Houston in 2006. His thesis was called Wild Beijing, in which he focused on the emergence of spontaneous urbanism in Beijing. After completing his training, Wang worked for one year at Peter Gluck’s firm GLUCK+ in New York. The office is known for specializing in hands-on design-built projects and acting as general contractor, which gives the architects a lot of control over quality of construction. Following Wang’s time in America, he relocated to Europe for two years, working at OMA in Rotterdam where he interacted with Rem Koolhaas, working particularly on projectsб in which various layers of social, cultural, and everyday life were overlapped to create active, truly contemporary spaces.
In late 2007, in anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and prospects of working on major projects in China, Wang went back home. He then spent two more years working at OMA Beijing with partner Ole Scheeren, the future founder of Büro Ole Scheeren. Working at OMA made an impact on Wang’s own work with particular focus on examining prevailing social patterns and tendencies that emerge both in cities and countryside. He started his new practice META-PROJECT in Beijing in 2010 with his wife Zhang Jing who also graduated from Tsinghua then earned her master’s degree from RISD in the US, and worked for Hariri & Hariri in New York. The following is a condensed version of my interview with Wang Shuo at his Beijing studio.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Before opening your own practice, you worked in New York at Peter Gluck’s office and then at OMA in Rotterdam and Beijing. What was that experience like?
Wang Shuo: My experience with Peter Gluck was all about materiality and achieving a good quality of construction. It prepared me well for China because architects here sometimes deal with contractors who don’t have extensive knowledge of such things as what to add to concrete, for example, to achieve a good result. Architects often have to write a whole construction manual on how certain materials or details need to be done. Realization of projects is very important. I wanted to learn not only how to design beautiful buildings but also how to construct and craft them.
OMA experience was very different. What I learned from them was that there is a process of knowledge production that you have to integrate into your design process. For example, right now we are working on a co-living project for young people here in Beijing. So many Chinese people come to cities for opportunities. But many can’t afford to buy or even rent their own apartment. So, a form of collective living in a community could be a good alternative. This model is not just about the economy, it is about socializing and living together, the advantage of using communal spaces and hybrid programs. Working on such projects you can’t simply resolve them by drawing abstract pretty shapes. You have to start with research. Ideas should be developed, not dreamed up. Otherwise, your project will be removed from reality and not going to be effective. We are not simply packaging spaces. We define and propose new kinds of spaces and programs. We think of architecture as a tool to make certain influences on the society based on our research. We believe our architecture can contribute to culture overall. Architecture is always a reflection of what is happening within the society and understanding that design can be used to push, pull, and mediate these processes.
VB: Could you talk about how your office operates and the kind of projects you work on?
WS: Our office is called META-PROJECT, not Wang Shuo Architects and that’s for a reason. We aim at launching different trajectories. Apart from the main focus of META-PROJECT on realizing architectural projects, there are two other divisions – META-RESEARCH and META-PROTOTYPE. META-RESEARCH is about interdisciplinary research such as hybrid living in the hutongs. We initiate round-table discussions with artists, architects, historians, sociologists, and other specialists. During these discussions, the participants produce knowledge that we record, systematize, and then popularize through exhibitions, conferences, and publications. This research may not lead to any particular project. The point is to accumulate knowledge. These projects are funded through research grants. I call this exercise predesign homework that we need to do. During various discussions, my artist friends have criticized how architects work because it is typical for architects to start projects superficially – without visiting the site, just by playing with maps, images, and whatever information available remotely. But going to the site and confronting people directly is very important. Otherwise, we are not working with reality. This is why I called the studio META-, because it is about transcending the basic meaning, going beyond the first impression. For example, data is just data, but meta-data is something that explains data.
The second division is META-PROTOTYPE. We produce prototypes that are not meant to be built. They are our recipes, so to speak. When clients approach us, we show them these prototypes. We discuss them as ideas that our clients could have benefited from. We work with models that are proven by the real estate market and we push them further to see what else could be improved. We don’t want to limit ourselves by simply doing the design. For example, if a client comes to us to design an apartment building, we want to discuss what kind of community may emerge there. We are not interested in just designing a bunch of apartments packed together. We want to create a total community by engaging residents, organizing and evolving various programs, proposing new ones, and so on. Perhaps in the end, our clients will not choose any of our prototypes, but they will get inspired and that may lead to another interesting solution. So, we constantly work with reality and insert something that we come across in our ongoing research.
VB: What would you say your architecture is about?
WS: First, we want to work on projects that can be built well and offer a good experience. We overdetail all our drawings. We leave no space for mistakes. We want to go beyond established and expected building types by reconsidering them and freeing ourselves from all preconceptions. I like studying urban behavior, how people tend to live together, what influences their decisions, and so on. These observations feed us with ideas. That’s what helps us to propose a particular circulation, density patterns, new order, and leave space for spontaneous behaviors. There is beauty in a chaotic, unregulated way of life. I was born and grew up in Beijing. In the 90s, when I was a teenager, it was a transformative time. For example, a street would be suddenly transformed into a book market with comics and all kinds of books, or music CDs. That made the city so alive and endlessly fascinating. Every neighborhood was so unique, specializing in different things. As an architect, I like such qualities of contemporary life. I look for them. I want to understand how these things work. Such phenomena cannot be reproduced but certain qualities can be stimulated. In a way, I work like a scientist. I want to understand the DNA of a particulate place and use that to produce my own prototype. The goal is to harness qualities that are spontaneous and genuine. That’s what our architecture is about – we try to recognize certain potential and invent a particular typology that would stimulate certain behavior or relationships. That’s the intention.
VB: How do you achieve such potentials for producing new building types?
WS: For sure, we are not just image designers, we brainstorm and develop programs. Clients always have ideas but as an architect, I have to make a suggestion. We test ideas. Most importantly, we don’t try to convince our clients based on aesthetics. We can actually prove how our proposals would work based on our research and completed projects. I would compare what we do to a prism, meaning information comes in, then it is reflected, reexamined, reorganized, and finally, projected and augmented. We use trial and error methods, like a hypothesis. In other words, we want to be like a prism rather than a mirror. There are so many urban theories that are utopian because they are not based on real studies. They may be valuable but not sustainable. A beautiful utopia may become a dystopia if realized. We are not just dreamers here.
VB: Could you talk about your design process?
WS: I never work on how buildings should look like. I am not sitting for hours sketching out my ideas and then handing them to my staff. That’s not how we operate. As I said, we undertake research. We gather data as a team and then discuss what we find to move to the design stage. Once we start the discussions, we develop diagrams. Then we overlay them to see what can emerge out of that process. We work with satellite maps, site photos, urban conditions, all kinds of data and statistics. We work conceptually, not visually. We also work with the site very closely. We try to do as little damage as possible. For example, in the project “Stage of Forest,” we minimized the impact on the existing vegetation, considered the sun path, the views, and so on. In fact, we managed not to cut a single living tree there. Our projects are very precise according to the program and context.
VB: Here in China, I interviewed at least twenty leading independent architects, and none seems to be working this way. At least currently, this is not the Chinese model. I use the word model because so many local architects follow a very particular design methodology, which has to do with regionalism and image-driven nostalgia, as well as incorporating of nature and ruins. Your architecture does not fit that tradition that has been dominating here for at least a decade. None of these architects forget for a moment that they are first and foremost Chinese. You seem not to care about that at all.
WS: You know what it is? It is my age. I am much younger.
VB: This is very interesting. You are about a decade younger than most of these architects. You bring a new generation. Already I can see a rebel in you. What is it that you are rebelling against? By the way, those who were born in the 60s and 70s are also rebels. They are rebelling against what the foreigners have built in China, as well as the local design institutes. So many of these projects feel utterly out of place here.
WS: I am not rebelling against these older architects. There is something heroic about their urge to resurrect Chinese culture. But I don’t have that in me. It is not an issue for me. I have traveled all over the world and I see myself as a part of it. I don’t see the world as East and West, or black and white. I want to direct my attention to addressing various issues. I don’t have an image in front of me of what my architecture should look like. I am not trying to build something that I already know. I want to improve the situation and have no idea how that is going to look like. I don’t need to remind myself that I am Chinese. I am, but that’s not what I am doing architecturally.
VB: I know some Chinese architects who also worked at OMA, but they disguise that. They don’t seem to be contaminated by the methodology that you learned and adapted so well.
WS: I agree, I was contaminated there. [Laughs.] I like and embrace that. The truth is that I get contaminated by a lot of things. I am contaminated by New York, Houston, LA, Rotterdam, Finland, Singapore, Bangkok, and so many other places where I worked and traveled. That’s what I think makes my work so interesting and rich. When I work on my designs, I don’t have the burden of being Chinese. I don’t even think about that at all. I am completely open to finding the best solution possible. I express in very straight forward and direct ways. Am I not Chinese enough? I don’t think any of my clients have a problem with that. I don’t think any of the people who use our buildings have any issues with that either.