‘This is not just about architecture. It’s about life’

A relative unknown outside of China, Wang Shu was thrust into the limelight earlier this year when he scooped architecture’s biggest prize. In the week the news went public, he spoke to Vision about the importance of heritage in his work and the power of the common touch

Wang Shu was in the car with his family, driving to see the famous terracotta warriors in Xian when he heard the news that took the architecture world by storm earlier this year: he’d been named winner of the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious honour in the field and one often referred to as architecture’s version of the Nobel.

Wang, 48, is the first China-based architect to win the honour (IM Pei, although born in Guangzhou in 1917, was well established as an American architect when he became a Pritzker laureate in 1983).

Raised and educated in China, he has never completed a building outside his home country. But certainly the Pritzker will bring him a new level of fame

“My family and I were taking my son, who is 10, to see the terracotta warriors,” Wang says. He pauses, still marvelling at the memory. “It was really a surprise.”

We are sitting in a new, upscale restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, several thousand miles from Hangzhou, the city west of Shanghai where Wang and his wife, Lu Wenyu, run a small firm called Amateur Architecture Studio. (Wang is visiting LA to give a lecture at UCLA that will take place on the same day the Pritzker news is made public.) The name of the firm is a reference to Wang’s interest in the vernacular, do-it-yourself architecture one finds all over China, particularly in rural areas.

“There are many examples of these buildings in the villages and countryside,” Wang says. “The people who build them don’t think of them as architecture, but they are using a very simple and clear idea about materials and construction. These buildings are often better than the work of architects. These are rich designs from common people.”

Modernist architecture

Wang’s architecture is deeply rooted in that interest in history and place. But his buildings have a highly contemporary design sensibility that flows from the clean lines of modernist architecture. From an aesthetic point of view, there is very little nostalgic about them. They certainly don’t look old-fashioned.

The two projects that the Pritzker jury singled out for praise – Wang’s Ningbo History Museum and his Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art – are cases in point. Each has a muscular, streamlined and modern profile. But they are constructed from millions of pieces of recycled brick and stone, collected from the rubble of demolished buildings.

In its headlong rush to urbanise, China is producing rubble at a staggering rate. Wang estimates that in many Chinese cities nearly 90 per cent of the traditional urban fabric of hutong courtyard apartments and other low-rise buildings has been wiped out to make room for new construction.

“My father’s home village disappeared in the last year, sold to a mining company. Which means I have no home town. I lost all those memories. So this is not just about architecture. It’s about life.”

Wang is not content to merely argue for historic preservation: “My work offers a critique of demolition, but it’s not just about that. Chinese cities need new development. We have offered a new model for what new buildings can look like. Just to offer a critique is not enough. You should also give an alternative vision.”

Salvaged materials interest him only if they can be put back to use in new buildings: “It’s not just about protecting old things and putting them in the museum. When you do that, it means the old thing has died.”

Deep knowledge

Wang spent the early years of his career working on construction crews, learning how materials behave and how buildings are put together. “I wanted to touch and understand all the materials,” he explains. “I wanted to know how architecture is built, because no teacher was teaching this. In my work, I know how every craftsman will put every nail into the wall.”

He argues that this deep knowledge of the construction process allows him to produce buildings with unusual, challenging forms. “This is why I dare to do so many experimental works. I know what’s possible and how it will turn out.”

Wang’s interest in the building process has led him to collaborate with the crews who construct his projects; he is far more comfortable giving up control and a sense of clear authorship than most well-known architects, and it may be this that sets him apart from his peers around the world.

“Architects want to control every detail,” he says. “They think their work will become perfect. I give the craftsmen very high-resolution computer drawings of how the designs should be built. But once they start building, the most amazing things happen. They follow my instructions almost exactly, but they make all kinds of little inventions and improvements. The result is something beyond my design. It’s amazing.”

Raised and educated in China, he has never completed a building outside his home country. But the Pritzker will bring him a new level of fame, and with it calls from clients who want him to design projects in America, Europe or the Middle East. Can he figure out a way to make his strategy of re-using salvaged materials work in Seattle, London or Dubai?

“I think I can do it. Even in China, my designs are not just about recycling traditional materials: I also recycle modern materials.” He smiles. “I can work with steel and concrete too.”