Pritzker Prize of $100,000 Won by Protesting Chinese Architect

Ningbo History Museum
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. Photographer: Lv Hengzhong/Amateur Architecture Studio via Bloomberg

Architect Wang Shu’s answer to the wholesale destruction of historic Chinese cities is to collect the stones of demolished buildings and install them in new ones.

The Hyatt Foundation of Chicago announced today that Wang has won the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize. He will receive $100,000 and a bronze medallion this May in Beijing.

With his wife, architect Lu Wenyu, Wang runs a small firm called Amateur Architecture Studio, staffed mostly by students in Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai. He also heads the architecture department of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.

Wang wasn’t an obvious choice for the prestigious 34-year-old Pritzker because he isn’t the well-established celebrity architect such big awards often celebrate. (Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel have been winners in the past dozen years.)

In choosing Wang, 49, the jury had a point to make.

“Over the coming decades, China’s success at urbanization will be important to China and to the world,” said Thomas J. Pritzker, chairman of The Hyatt Foundation in a statement. The late billionaire Jay Pritzker founded Hyatt Hotels Corp.

As it hurtles into an urban future of megacities, China has obliterated centuries of urban and cultural history.

The development juggernaut leaves behind super-blocks filled with characterless towers wrapped by vast car-clogged boulevards.

A few years ago one fast-rising Chinese architect told me the country will come to see its industrialized assembly-line city-making as madness.

Amateur Architecture

Wang, in a series of idiosyncratic works, has gently attempted to help Chinese realize what they are erasing.

Wang’s History Museum in Ningbo looks like an ancient fortress, with tilting walls that appear eroded by centuries. Up close the walls look weathered because they are exquisitely composed of worn salvaged stones and old arched roof tiles that alternate the predominant gray with bright orange patches of squiggly terra cotta.

Inside, angled walls and narrow passages that open to grand atrium spaces similarly evoke the mysterious qualities of the narrow streets that twist and turn through traditional Chinese cities.

Local officials originally hated “the dirty old materials,” Wang said in a telephone interview. Yet people come to the museum again and again for its evocation of the 30 picturesque area villages that disappeared in the name of progress. The officials “gave me a formal apology,” he said.

Big and Fast

Many of the Chinese architects of Wang’s generation have been trained in the best universities of the U.S. and Europe, and have rapidly come to prominence designing massive developments and entire cities at mind-boggling scale and speed.

By contrast, Wang trained entirely in China and set architecture aside for several years while he learned craft skills working with artisans.

Wang has little use for the formal coherence I expect from Western architects. That’s especially visible in designs for the Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art.

One building seems to project arbitrarily into a pond, with a roof that drapes between serried peaks. An external stair runs up and down an outside wall like a graph line.

He arranged windows in elaborate decorative patterns, some evoking traditional screens, others whimsical calligraphic characters.

Some of Wang’s buildings make an awkward first impression; they seem not so much designed as improvised.

“It’s 21 buildings, the scale of a small town,” said Wang of the Xiangshan Campus. “It’s intended to look like a natural evolution rather than one architect’s vision.”

Undisciplined to my eyes, this work must be utterly refreshing in today’s China.

I suspect Wang is too much a hothouse flower to change the direction of his nation’s gigantic urban-development machine. But I commend the Pritzker jury for making him an international messenger for humane, people-centered places.

(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.)

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