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And the Pritzker Prize Goes to…China360°ANALYSIS

A small glimpse at the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize and its significance in relation to China’s urban development.

The Pritzker Prize was created in 1979 by the Hyatt Foundation. Today it is recognized as one of, if not the most prestigious distinctions in the field of architecture. This award has already distinguished architects such as Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano. In 2011, the prize was awarded to Eduardo Souto De Moura from Portugal. This year – and for the first time in Pritzker Prize’s history – the award goes to China. The Chinese architect Wang Shu is the new laureate.

Wang Shu is a professor and the head of the Department of Architecture at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. In 2011, he became the first Chinese Kenzo Tange Visiting Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was born in 1963 in Urumqi, a city located in the province of Xinjiang. After receiving his degree in architecture from the Nan Nanjing Institute of Technology, he co-founded the Amateur Architecture Studio with his wife in 1997 in Hangzhou.

The name of the studio itself is an expression of his philosophy. The most significant aspects which drive his work method are spontaneity and intimacy. Wang Shu has worked for several years on building sites, which enabled him to learn traditional skills. These were important tools in the development of his work, namely, the way traditional techniques are employed in his projects. The goal is thus that the architect should work within a framework where past and future are mediated, thereby bringing architecture to the practical, “real" daily life perspective without losing its “artistic or monumental statement”. To a certain extent, although it is not a unique approach, his vision goes beyond the thingness of buildings. A myriad of things –  door handles, screws, nails, materials, shapes – are put together to form a building. In its whole it’s an object, made out of other objects, each carefully planned to serve a determined function. It is a place to live, visit, read and read; all these predicates are much beyond the thing itself. The building becomes a house, a library and eventually becomes a place of memories and experiences. It is precisely such a dimension that Wang Shu has as his main concern. It is the experience itself: the correlation between the experiences of the building, the imbuing of meaning, and, in return, the way this affects those who experience it.

Following these ideas, Wang Shu has presented us with some unexpected ideas. For example, to cover the roofs of the Xingshan campus buildings — a China Academy of Art campus located in his hometown Hangzhou — he used more than two million tiles taken from demolished traditional houses. The major projects in Wang Shu’s portfolio are the Contemporary Art Museum and the Ningbo Historic Museum, which are located in Ningbo, a coastal city south of Shangai. The Historic Museum also includes recycled materials from other buildings.

Since 2003 he has been a regular participant in many international events and has won several awards for his work: his architecture studio was awarded the architecture art award of China for the Wenzheng Library in 2003; in 2010 they received the Schelling Architecture Prize and Wang Shu also received a special mention for an installation called “Decay of a Dome” at the 2010 Venice Biennale. In 2011 he received the Gold Medal of Architecture (Grand Médaille d’or) from the l'Académie d'Architecture in France. Now he has been distinguished with the Pritzker Prize.

This year’s Pritzker Prize jury was headed by Lord Palumbo and counted Alejandro Aravena, Zaha Hadid and Karen Steinamong its members. Awarding the prize to a Chinese person is quite significant. It brings to the fore some of the challenges China will encounter in its urban planning in the years to come.

Together with its economic development, China is now facing a peculiar phenomenon which results from a massive renovation of its urban landscape. Old buildings, which permeate the country’s history, are being replaced by new ones highly influenced by western designs. The word “demolition” is becoming an increasingly common term in China’s urban planning. The danger is that this might result in a split between the environment — both ecological and cultural — and the new sense of “modernity” which is transforming China. Ultimately, the problem has to do with a vital balance between the ecological, environmental and historical aspects on the one hand, and between urban planning and demographic growth on the other. There are innumerous factors which underlie today’s circumstances.

However, it is clear that although China was somehow “protected” from foreign architectural and design principles for a long period of time and therefore maintained some of its traditional characteristics, this also isolated it from the rest of the world. The doors have recently been semi-opened, allowing China to take part in the global discourse. Still, when considered in the long term, this will surely affect China’s identity. Due to this recent openness, China has become a huge lab for experimental designs. In this sense, Wang Shu’s award is also a statement of concern about this new reality that is affecting China.

The jury has clearly distinguished Wang Shu not only because of the exceptional quality of his work, but also because his approach meets precisely these concerns. In particular, the way space and materials contribute to an environmental dialog exhibit how recycling used materials builds bridges to the future without losing sight of its context. This tradition actually harbors the sense of the projects themselves. To put it the way Wang Shu himself did: “when I say that I build a ‘house’ instead of a ‘building’, I am thinking of something that is closer to life, everyday life”.

A good word to describe Wang Shu’s work would be “resonance”, for it encompasses the singular relationship between past and present. The form is modern, yet still keeps its roots. The relevance of such concept to China’s urban development is perfectly described in the Pritzker Prize jury’s citation: “the question of the proper relation of present to past is particularly timely, for the recent process of urbanization in China invites debate as to whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should look only toward the future. As with any great architecture, Wang Shus work is able to transcend that debate, producing an architecture that is timeless, deeply rooted in its context and yet universal.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.