China's New Global Architecture Superstar Gets Mixed Reviews At Home

Through his bold designs, Wang Shu is bringing culture and soul to Chinese architecture. Last week, he became the first architect working in China to get the profession's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize. But his colleagues and art students back

Ningbo Museum of History (Lv Hengzhong)
Ningbo Museum of History (Lv Hengzhong)
Na Di

BEIJING - Last week, 48 year-old Chinese architect Wang Shu was awarded this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Created in 1979 by Jay Pritzker and his wife, the prize is the architectural world's equivalent to the Nobel: each year a living architect is acknowledged for his outstanding contribution to architectural design, the environment and humankind through ingenuity, imagination and responsibility.

In 1983, this prize was awarded to the Chinese-American architect Ieoh-Ming Pei, but Wang Shu is the first Chinese winner to have spent his career in China. Wang lives in Hangzhou, where he is the Dean of the School of Architecture, China Academy of Art. In 1997, he and his wife Lu Wenyu, also an architect, founded a firm called the Amateur Architecture Studio, meant as a sort of rebuke to "soulless, professional architecture".

In China, he is not known to the greater public because his works are not among the skyscrapers and odd-looking buildings springing up in first-tier cities. His major projects include the Ningbo Museum of Art and Ningbo Museum, and the Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art, all of them situated in the eastern province of Zhejiang.

What is most emblematic with Wang's works is he that likes to use salvaged material. For example, he collected as many as 7 million pieces of old tiles, bricks and stone from numerous demolition sites for the Xiangshan Campus he designed, giving rebirth to these tiles on the buildings' walls and roofs. This is a common technique he shares with the Taiwanese architect Hsieh Ying-Chun.

Wang Shu's literary temperament and strong artistry are deeply rooted in the texture of his work. Born of a musician father and a librarian mother, Wang started immersing himself in the history of art in his 20's during the 1980s. He later widened his interests into contemporary arts, philosophy, literature, anthropology and films. From Li Yu, the 17th century Chinese dramatist, to Shen Congwen, the famous 20th century Chinese writer, to Roland Barthes, his passions for reading and researching cover a large palette.

Between 1990 and 1998, he did not take on any new design projects. Instead, he spent time with carpenters, learning how a nail is hammered into wood. After years of working at a fast pace, he became convinced that the kind of architecture he wanted to pursue would allow him "to express the finest essence of the culture," he said. "It is impossible to achieve such work in a hasty manner. Nor does it make any sense just to simply imitate others."

On learning that he was being awarded the architectural world's highest prize, which comes with $100,000, he said: "I suddenly realized that I've done many things over the last decade. It proves that earnest hard work and persistence lead to positive outcomes."

Boldness and innovation don't always find consensus

One of members of the jury, Zaha Hadid, a Pritzker laureate herself, praised him: "Wang's work stands out for its combination of sculptural power and contextual sensitivity. His transformative use of ancient materials and motifs is highly original and stimulating."

Chang Yung Ho, the first Chinese (*actually a Chinese-American…) Pritzker jury member, concurred that "Wang's work is rooted in the local context and is culturally sensitive. It shows that architecture in China is more than the mass production of market-driven banality and the reproduction of the exotic."

Alejandro Aravena, the Chilean architect, added that Wang Shu ́s work is "timeless, deeply rooted in its context and yet universal."

Nevertheless, the reaction of Wang's Chinese contemporaries to his honor is not quite so consensual. Some of his peers shared his happiness and emotion, but others weren't so enthralled. They believe that Wang Shu's design "caters' to the West, something many Chinese architects can in fact be accused of.

An even more surprising reaction came from the users of the Wang-designed Xingshan Campus: the students of the China Academy of Art. They left comments on, a Chinese social website:

"It's colder than a freezer in winter, with tiny windows that don't let the sun shine in..."

"A maze-like place where I get lost every time I go…"

"It's always hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Those jury members should come and stay for a week…"

In any case, what is certain is that under the spotlight of the Pritzker Prize, Wang Shu's designs will continue to be a topic of debate for years to come.

Read the original article here in Chinese.

Photo - Lv Hengzhong

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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