Wang Shu believes each generation has its own understanding of traditions

Vladimir Belogolovsky asks Wang Shu of Hangzhou-based Amateur Architecture Studio about the essence of his work and what western architects could learn from China.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Apr 24, 2021

Wang Shu (b. 1963, Ürümqi, Xinjiang) earned his Master of Architecture from Nanjing Institute of Technology, now Southeast University, in 1988. He then spent a decade at Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, while building small experimental projects. In 1997, Shu founded his practice Amateur Architecture Studio with his wife Lu Wenyu. The same year he returned to school to pursue his PhD at Tongji University in Shanghai.

Upon his graduation in 2000, Shu was invited back to Hangzhou to teach at the Academy where he was challenged with a unique opportunity – to start a new school of architecture – creating its curriculum, teaching and selecting faculty, and finally, building it. More so, he and Wenyu would design the Academy’s new Xiangshan Campus (Phases I & II, III 2002–13), a collection of 30 academic buildings. In 2007, the architect was named Dean at the Academy’s School of Architecture.

Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu Image: Iwan Baan

In 2012, Shu became the first Chinese citizen to win the Pritzker Prize. His Ningbo History Museum, which many local architects cite as the most significant work of architecture in China, was built in 2008, the year of the Beijing Summer Olympics, almost all venues for which were designed by foreign architects. The building, beautifully clad in recycled bricks and tiles, salvaged from demolition of ancient villages in the area, represents a turning moment for Chinese architecture, as it pointed to an alternative model of building something thoroughly modern, yet without erasing local history.

Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase II, 2004-07 | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase II, 2004-07 Image: Iwan Baan

Amateur Architecture Studio’s other most significant projects include Lin’an Museum in Hangzhou (2020), Fuyang Cultural Complex in Anhui province (2017), Regeneration of Wencun Village in Zhejiang province (2012-16), and Library of Wenzheng College on the Suzhou University Campus (2000), arguably the earliest example of pure Modernist or rather Neo-Modernist project in China. The following is a fragment of my interview with Wang Shu via WeChat video call between New York and Hangzhou. The interview’s full version will appear in China Dialogues, a collection of my interviews with China’s leading 21 architects to be published this spring by ORO Edition and Tongji University Press.

Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase II, 2004 - Sketch drawn by Wang Shu from left to right without a stop over a period of four hours | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase II, 2004 - sketch drawn by Wang Shu from left to right without a stop over a period of four hours Image: Courtesy of Amateur Architecture Studio

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Is it true that architects working at your office don’t come before lunch time, leaving the mornings to just you and Lu Wenyu to think, discuss, and reflect?

Wang Shu (WS): Yes. Usually we start our days with drinking tea (laughs). We cut trees and plants in our garden. I draw and we discuss our recent designs. Lu is the only person who criticises my work. But we are very relaxed here. Right now, there are 10 architects, including us. All our assistants are local architects. In the past, we had some foreigners. None of them are students. We don’t plan to grow; we are quite happy with our size right now. We are big enough to undertake any project and control its quality. We don’t need to work on many projects at the same time.  

VB: Both you and Lu grew up in Xinjiang. Why then did you decide to move to Hangzhou to start your careers there?

WS: That was my decision. Hangzhou is a famous city in China for its beauty, ancient poetry, and painting. It is the most beautiful city in China for its scenery and landscape. This city on a lake was always in my heart. And after 2000, when I completed my PhD at Tongji University in Shanghai everyone was surprised when I went back to Hangzhou, where we lived since graduating from Nanjing. We didn’t stay in Shanghai because Shanghai is not China, but Hangzhou is China.

Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase II  | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase II Image: Iwan Baan

VB: During your student time in Nanjing and in the early years of your career you were interested in Deconstuctivist architecture. Could you talk about that?

WS: Yes, in my third year we had an assignment to design a hypothetical housing project. I modelled my proposal on the famous Fujian Tulou, a cluster of round residential buildings in Fujian province. I designed it in a Deconstructivist style. The project attracted a lot of attention. It was even christened as the first Post-Modernist project in China. Our school had a very comprehensive collection of books and periodicals coming from all over the world. So, it was possible to follow the works by leading architects in America and Europe. I particularly recall following projects by Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Wolf Prix, Daniel Libeskind, and early paintings by Zaha Hadid. I was also interested in studying Chinese calligraphy done in various styles – from restrained to very expressive, which are somewhat similar to Deconstructivist projects. I was also interested in the work of such architects as Aldo Rossi and Mario Botta and I even argued with my classmate – who of them would become the master to be followed. Another architect who caught my attention was Tadao Ando.

Wa Shan Guesthouse, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase III, 2006-13 | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
Wa Shan Guesthouse, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase III, 2006-13 Image: Iwan Baan

VB: What specifically made you abandon that direction and dedicate your efforts to exploring local traditions?

WS: That fascination with Chinese culture started when I was young, even though there was no special training or influence from my family. I started doing calligraphy when I was in elementary school. I had no particular references then. So, I felt I had to invent my own style. I practiced a lot by writing Chinese poems from Tang Dynasty. But in college everybody around me was fascinated mostly by western ideas. In contrast to that, with a friend of mine, we liked to study and discuss Chinese paintings. I remember how strange that was to our fellow students. They even called us crazy (laughs).  

Fuyang Cultual Complex, Fuyang, Anhui province, 2017 | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
Fuyang Cultual Complex, Fuyang, Anhui province, 2017 Image: Iwan Baan

VB: Ningbo Museum and your other buildings seem to diffuse a notion of a single authorship. Could you talk about diversity, anonymity, and multiplicity of voices in your architecture?

WS: I pursued this concept of anonymity in my PhD, during which I worked on the idea of anonymous architecture. And already in my Wenzheng College Library I incorporated this idea. For example, by introducing small volumes that accompany the main large structure. This is what you can see in traditional houses in Suzhou – they are delightful and beautiful, but not in a personal way. They are a product of a very organic language. That is what’s moving about these structures. And that’s what I was trying to express in a different way, particularly in the Ningbo Museum. I call the facades of this building – architecture completed by thousands of hands. I refer to the diversity of techniques in the construction of that building. And we mixed new and salvaged materials side by side. I wanted to build a small town with its own life, which could once again, wake up the latent memory of the city that was built over the demolished ancient villages.

Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, 2008 | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, 2008 Image: Iwan Baan

VB: Could you talk about your Guesthouse on the Xiangshan Campus? People say that they are getting lost there. Was that intentional?

WS: To respond to your question, I need to refer you to my dissertation project again, where I explored the idea of a flaneur, an urban stroller. I remember watching a documentary on an ancient city in Morocco. The narrator said – there are 1,000 streets and alleys there and every visitor gets lost there. But the city’s inhabitants never get lost. There are many signs and hints that they use to find their ways. That’s what I like about historical architecture, which is designed for overall cohesiveness and long-term use rather than serving an immediate purpose, and there is a tendency nowadays for everything to stand out as a contrast to everything else. So, when I was designing the Guesthouse the idea was to create a building that has a sense of belonging to history and time, not merely representing its purpose in our own time.  

  • Wa Shan Guesthouse, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase III, 2006-13 | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
    Wa Shan Guesthouse, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, Phase III, 2006-13 Image: Iwan Baan
  • The Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, has a sense of belonging to history and time | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
    The Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, has a sense of belonging to history and time Image: Iwan Baan

VB: I am interested in your idea of re-composition – using salvaged materials in new ways. What would you say is the essence of your architecture? What is it primarily about?

WS: The essence of my architecture is in trying to maintain a cultural continuity. You can’t protect and preserve culture as is. That is not enough. You have to find a dialogue between tradition and continuously changing life. Each generation has its own understanding of traditions. It is important to be conscious that all of us are taking part in re-composing traditions as we know them – in how we carry on different stories or re-compose and interpret the language. We may not be aware of it, but we are continuously re-composing the reality we know. And how can we forget about such notions of human nature as passion, creativity, inventiveness, and originality that play a definitive role in the design process!? So, the main goal of preserving traditions is not about following or copying them, but to find constructive ways to achieve the main purpose – not to allow traditions and classical knowledge die. I am not interested in the past and traditional things; I am rather interested in the difference between the past and our own contemporary time.

Wencun Village, Zhejiang province, 2012-16 | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect WANG Shu | STIRworld
Wencun Village, Zhejiang province, 2012-16 Image: Iwan Baan

VB: Over the last 20 years Chinese architects had a lot to learn from western architects. What do you think is the main lesson that architects from other cultures could learn from what the Chinese architects have discovered?

WS: China, in its continuous process of urbanisation, has been serving an important testing ground for the whole world by providing both positive and negative examples, especially for developing countries. As far as architecture, Chinese architects have to negotiate between different civilisations. In China, we are still much closer to more traditional methods of construction. We are closer to nature than the building industry in the West. For example, wet construction – the use of brick and mortar or concrete in erecting structures – is very much viable in China. So, the Chinese architects can use these traditional techniques in very creative ways and that could be shared with more developed countries where these practices are no longer common.

Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art in China | Vladimir Belogolovsky in conversation with architect Wang Shu | STIRworld
Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art in China Image: Iwan Baan

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