Pritzker-Winning Architect Bucks China’s Megacity Trend

Tap for Slideshow
Photographer: Matthieu Gafou/Bloomberg Businessweek

Wang Shu. The architect was awarded the $100,000 Pritzker Architecture Prize in May 2012.

Close
Photographer: Matthieu Gafou/Bloomberg Businessweek

Wang Shu. The architect was awarded the $100,000 Pritzker Architecture Prize in May 2012. Close

Wang Shu. The architect was awarded the $100,000 Pritzker Architecture Prize in May 2012.

Photographer: Lv Hengzhong/Amateur Architecture Studio via Bloomberg

A detail of the fortress-like exterior of the Ningbo History Museum, in Ningbo, China. The building is probably the best-known work of Wang Shu, who has been awarded the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize. The worn and variegated look of the exterior was produced by using discarded building stones and roof tiles. Close

A detail of the fortress-like exterior of the Ningbo History Museum, in Ningbo, China. The building is probably the... Read More

Photographer: Lv Hengzhong/Amateur Architecture Studio via Bloomberg

An exterior view of one of the buildings in the Xianshan Campus of the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, China. Its rising and falling window patterns and stairways are an almost whimsical contrast to the industrialized rows of identical buildings typical of rapidly urbanizing China. Architect Wang Shu has been awarded the 2012 Pritzker Achitecture Prize. Close

An exterior view of one of the buildings in the Xianshan Campus of the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, China. Its... Read More

Photographer: Lv Hengzhong/Amateur Architecture Studio via Bloomberg

An interior view of one of the buildings in the Xianshan Campus of the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, China. Its changing window patterns suggest the improvisational style of the architect, Wang Shu, who has been awarded the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Close

An interior view of one of the buildings in the Xianshan Campus of the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, China. Its... Read More

Photographer: Lang Shuilong/Amateur Architecture Studio via Bloomberg

One of five ornamental houses in a park in Ningbo, China. They were designed as idiosyncratic cafes and viewing places along a lake by Wang Shu, an architect whose Amateur Architecture Studio is based in Hangzhou, China. Wang has been awarded the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Close

One of five ornamental houses in a park in Ningbo, China. They were designed as idiosyncratic cafes and viewing... Read More

Photographer: Lv Hengzhong/Amateur Architecture Studio via Bloomberg

Ceramic House (2003-2006) in Jinhua, China. The building was designed by architect Wang Shu, who has been awarded the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Close

Ceramic House (2003-2006) in Jinhua, China. The building was designed by architect Wang Shu, who has been awarded the... Read More

Photographer: Lv Hengzhong/Amateur Architecture Studio via Bloomberg

Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, China. The building was designed by architect Wang Shu, who won the 2012 Pritzker Arhitecture Prize. Close

Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, China. The building was designed by architect Wang Shu, who... Read More

The day after Chinese architect Wang Shu was awarded the $100,000 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field’s equivalent of a Nobel, in May 2012, he returned to the old Beijing neighborhood where he grew up and found it in the process of being demolished.

The hutong, with its maze of narrow streets and traditional courtyard houses, was being sacrificed to make room for a new philosophy center.

While European cities that exploded with industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries are still sorting out the consequences of modernization, their boom times appear sedate compared with China’s last two decades. By 2030, the mainland will be home to 13 mega cities, those with a population of 10 million or more. That’s up from six today, estimates a McKinsey & Co. report.

That breakneck urbanization is quickly obliterating 5,000 years of architecture and culture.

“Cities today have become far too large,” Wang said in an interview while visiting New York in April. “I’m really worried, because it’s happening too fast and we have already lost so much.”

Wang, a sturdy 49-year-old, has built his small architectural practice as a riposte to this heedless destruction. With his wife, architect Lu Wenyu, he runs a 10-person firm called Amateur Architecture Studio in Hangzhou, a picturesque lakeside city southwest of Shanghai.

Breakneck Growth

The firm’s modest output of 50 buildings hardly seems up to the task of altering the course of China’s development juggernaut. Instead, Wang tries to persuade through the structures he builds.

They are idiosyncratic and contemporary, yet evoke China’s densely packed older cities.

“His avant-garde designs come from Chinese tradition,” says Ou Ning, an artist and curator whose own work has often focused on China’s rapidly evolving urban landscape.

That juxtaposition is on display at the Hangzhou campus of the China Academy of Art. Unlike the rigidly ordered superblocks of Chinese mega cities, expanding in endless grids of wide, noisy boulevards, Wang’s buildings, completed in 2007, cling to a slope in a closely spaced jumble.

The apparent disorder is intentional, the architect said. “I want the campus to feel as if it is more than one person’s vision.” That’s a sensibility utterly at odds with cities laid out by international master-planning firms.

Draping Roofs

The academy buildings shape intimate interior and exterior courtyards. In one long structure, roofs drape between peaks, suggesting both a mountain range in silhouette and the traditional shed-roof buildings of Chinese villages. Shadowy arcades have walls punched with randomly arranged windows, one of the architect’s hallmarks.

Wang’s 2008 History Museum in Ningbo, with tilting walls that look weathered by centuries, resembles an ancient fortress. Up close, the variegated surface proves to be exquisitely assembled of worn salvaged stones and old roof tile -- the use of recycled materials is a theme in Wang’s work. Shades of gray alternate with random patches of bright orange terracotta.

Inside, angled walls and narrow passages open to grand atriums. These, too, recall the mysterious qualities of the hutong’s narrow streets, twisting and turning in shadow before flowing into sunny courtyards.

Wang says he once met a woman who told him she visited the museum often and would stare at its walls for long stretches because she found “many familiar things” in them.

“I believe you can design a place that awakens people’s feelings and their memories,” he says.

Pritzker Winner

Since winning the Pritzker, Wang says he gets calls every day from prospective clients in China and around the world, but he wants to stick to the small-scale, deliberate approach he and his wife have developed.

“People said you have a responsibility to take on more, so now we take on two new projects a year instead of one,” he says.

Can such a deliberately small firm really make a broader impact? Wang and Lu have extended their influence as teachers. Wang founded the architecture school at Hangzhou’s Academy of Art and is its dean. The program admits just 120 students a year out of an applicant pool of more than 10,000.

Wang’s work helps advance a nascent interest in historic preservation, says Ma Yansong, a young principal of an innovative, fast-growing Beijing architecture firm, MAD.

High Anxiety

“Shu deserved to receive the Pritzker,” Ma says. “But the fundamental challenge of Chinese urbanization is density, which in Asia means tall buildings. How do you connect high density with nature, so that people don’t see themselves as living in a machine?”

Residents are becoming disenchanted with the coldness of the instant contemporary skyline city, he adds.

“When the first high-rise modern buildings went up, everyone wanted to move out of the hutongs, which were dirty and didn’t even have private toilets,” he says. “Now, when modern buildings are all around, even taxi drivers tell you they long for the social world the hutongs supported, a real place shared by all kinds of people.”

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include London and New York weekend guides and Lewis Lapham on history.

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net. http://www.jamessrussell.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.