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 megacities—those with a population of 10 million or more—up from six today, estimates a McKinsey report. That breakneck urbanization is fast obliterating 5,000 years of architecture and culture. “Cities today have become far too large,” Wang says. “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. 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 megacities, 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 in an interview during an April visit to New York: “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.
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 terra cotta. 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.
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. “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 high-rise 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.”