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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 Douban.com, 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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