[Q&A] China’s building boom has been dominated by soaring glass skyscrapers and contemporary designs inspired by the West. Wang Shu questions the wisdom of this approach.
You’ve won the world’s most prestigious architecture prize and yet your firm is called Amateur Architecture Studio. Why did you choose this name for your firm?
I named my studio Amateur Architecture Studio, which has a special meaning in China. It was not until the 1990s that the term “professional architecture” entered into China’s public discourse. Today in China, architects are often afraid of being labelled unprofessional or not modern. So rigorously learning from the West, they are designing huge, powerful, bright, smooth, high-tech, landmark public buildings and high-rise residential projects for the purpose of commercial development. These buildings have been built in a short time but on a very wide scale. This has led to the near-complete destruction of traditional architecture and local ways of life, a problem now expanding from the cities to the villages.
But these professional architects rarely consider their professional duty and the dangers of their way of working. They rarely question this pursuit of the so-called modern at the expense of our traditions and culture. This rapid rate of construction makes it difficult to see regional cultural diversity and small differences in people’s ways of life.
I like to design buildings that are small, natural, non-reflective, rough in touch, not that clean, combined with local crafts, and connected with traditional, non-remarkable buildings. I think that compared with cities, the villages have maintained better values; in the severely changed reality, humanity is ever more important than buildings. If I’m faced with designing a large building, I often like to dissolve its power with little things.
Amateur also means that I have a lot of life interests. I love them. Architecture is one of them.
When you started in architecture, you began with renovations. What did renovating existing spaces teach you about designing a new space?
My early years of doing renovation projects helped me understand how important it is, when making a good building, to visit the site and control the materials and construction process. But what’s more important is that there are two architectural perspectives in the world: one is purely abstract; the other comes from understanding the site and realizing that something existed before the emergence of the new building.
One of your most well-known designs is the Ningbo History Museum. You used recycled rubble collected by local craftsmen and artisans and incorporated the material into the new structure. Why?
In 2000, Chinese cities began dismantling a large number of traditional buildings, and the materials from them were abandoned everywhere. It was wasteful, not just because of culture but also because of morality. I felt that I had to do something.
To me, tradition means keeping objects alive in daily life and construction, not exhibiting them in museums. To build with recycled bricks and tiles is the tradition of the area I live in. In this way, the materials are saved, various new possibilities of material application are expressed, ample and exquisite crafts are developed and meanings of memory and time are kept.
But today, in the new architecture, this tradition has been broken. Huge amounts of materials from demolished buildings are left behind as trash. The Ningbo Historic Museum and the Xiangshan campus were built with recycled materials from a wide range of the surrounding areas. What I have experimented with is how to mix these handmade materials with modern materials and mix craftsmanship with modern mechanical construction technology, so that the broken tradition can be restored and kept alive today. Thus, the abandoned materials retain their dignity and stay alive. I intend to keep experimenting in this way.
When you won the Pritzker Prize, you reportedly said, “This is a really big surprise. I suddenly realized that I’ve done many things over the last decade. And still, I’m so young.” What did you mean by that?
Over the past 10 years, my colleagues and I in the studio have been doing our favorite kind of work, as well as experimenting. I don’t like talking too much. That’s why we’re using our work — and not our voices — to convince others of our approach in the context of this fast-paced growth in China. And many Chinese architects don’t believe that we will be successful. I am still young. Youth is hope.
Photo courtesy of Mario Capitanio.