Wang Shu, Anti-architect

August 13, 2012

China has made its position clear on how to develop new towns, cities, and campuses: hire expensive Western Starchitects to design prototype buildings and ensembles, then copy them ad infinitum until you have a Modernist nightmare. The 2008 Olympics set the tone, and Chinese have been complaining ever since.

Strange, then, that China’s only Pritzger laureate is Wang Shu, an architect who hates Western-style excess and lives in the middle of nowhere. Jane Perlez of the New York Times has visited him in Hangzhou, and observed that all of his buildings are “touched by old China” and that he “is an outlier in his profession.”

It’s hard not to like Mr. Wang, who with his wife Lu Wenyu runs a small studio with mainly part-time student help. He practices calligraphy like an old Chinese poet-scholar, and recycles all sorts of traditional building materials in his work. He drives an old station wagon and lives modestly. He took some time off to learn about traditional building craft from old masters. He is nothing like the high-flying darlings of the architectural media in the west.

Of course, once he won his Pritzger, Chinese officials embraced him as their new exemplar and Western academic architects claimed that he was solidly within the “modernist” camp that they espouse. That he finds both of their positions distasteful and hypocritical seems beside the point to the media. Brava to Ms. Perez for pointing some of this out in her article.

It’s hard to be a real revolutionary in a culture where everything is immediately consumed and labeled. Mr. Wang and Ms. Lu are clearly railing against the status quo in their quiet way. They are acutely aware of the effects of government corruption, land graft, and the alienation of Modernist urbanism. In a very real sense they are anti-architects, at least as the profession is currently practiced in China and almost everywhere else. Hurray for that.