Wang Shu: Cultural shift

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Wang Shu gave the keynote address at the 2012 National Architecture Conference in Brisbane. He spoke with Helen Norrie for Architecture Australia about the seeds of change he is sowing among Chinese architects.

Helen Norrie: Wang Shu, your work is described as a critique of urbanization that is driven by a concern with the way the pace of rapid development in China is eroding tradition and cultural memory. Your buildings establish a very sensitive engagement with the broader temporal, cultural and historical context, but is it frustrating that you can create only tiny ripples in this tide of great change?

Wang Shu: In China now it’s very difficult. For example, over the past ten years the government and businessmen have been saying, “Oh, we should keep our tradition. We should keep our history.” But then they demolish the buildings and build new ones in the same style.

I think in the past ten years I really have only made a little bit of difference; it’s not much, because in China everything happens too fast and it doesn’t give you any time to think about things. I can see more and more people gradually understanding what I think, and they, too, want do something different. But it’s not easy; if you really want to do something different, you need to know how to do it.

HN: Do you feel that there’s any way that you, as an individual, or the profession in general, can actually make any impact? Or is this really a bigger systemic issue?

WS: Yeah, I think it’s time [to really make an impact], but I’m really too specialized in China; I’m almost out of the professional system. My practice is not an office, it’s not a company, it’s just a small studio. In China, I think the problem is that architecture is treated like a business, with too many projects happening at once and no time to work on the designs.

Wang Shu at the National Architecture Conference.

Wang Shu at the National Architecture Conference.

Image: Peter Bennetts

HN: In your work you engage with the essence of the culture and tap into tradition, and then invent and interpret this in your own way. This opens up a very lateral idea of how to value history and tradition in a manner that keeps the culture alive.

WS: I think I do something really special, and I use this in the really big public works. In the beginning, the people in China couldn’t accept this idea. For example, we use recycled materials, but Chinese people hate old things. They say, “You use the old things, dirty things; not clean” [laughs] … They’d be shocked if we used recycled materials to build a museum or apartment buildings, so it’s really a very difficult process. Gradually they are becoming more confident in this way. It’s not just about thinking and concepts, it involves real techniques, construction control, quality, different standards. This way doesn’t [necessarily conform to] our construction law, so we have to have some expert meetings to develop new standards. So, it’s not easy. I talk about Chinese tradition, but in fact, every time I design it’s not always connected to tradition [laughs] … it’s my way.

HN: In the process of establishing connections to culture and tradition, memory is important. I read a beautiful quote where you described memory as a series of fragments that we loop together.

WS: Yeah, memory has a special meaning for me. When I say memory I mean something that’s related to someone’s private feelings. It’s not just about society’s memory. It’s not about some symbol, some signs, no. It’s about some very private feelings about your past time, your life, your habits, your common life. I got this idea from the French writer [Jean-Paul] Sartre. He has a novel that has a very good part at the beginning of the story. He goes for a walk on his street, then goes back to his hotel room. When he opens the doors, suddenly he gets a special feeling in his body. This makes a memory relating to the door handles that several years later he can still remember. That’s why I am now very careful in my design of the door handles [laughs].

HN: So this relates to your own projects. Although the buildings you are designing are relatively small within the scale of the city, they assist in building a sense of constructed memory, which has the potential to create strong personal associations. This is a very optimistic approach, don’t you think?

WS: I don’t just worry that we have lost our history – I also worry that we have lost our tradition. I really worry that the people in China have lost their real feelings about life, that they are just imagining and learning concepts about the future and modernization. There is no [cultural] difference. For example, [Australia] is a democratic country and China is a communist country, but one thing is the same: the people want their country to become modern and more innovative; it’s the same, the same.

HN: Does that then impact on the way that you teach and the way that the program in your school works? One of the things that you have been critical of is people just building in this kind of Western way.

WS: Yeah, I do some different things. I want to build a different education system; that’s my dream. So now we have an architecture school near Hangzhou. Our teaching ways are totally different from those in any other Chinese architecture school. It’s a new school. I built it in 2001, when we had one teacher – me [laughs] – and twenty students. Now we have more than three hundred students and more than twenty teachers.

Basically, I want the students from the very beginning to really touch something, to not just work from concepts or drawings. It’s hand-making, hand-drawing, constructing something. For example, when a student first comes to our school, they build just a very small building.

HN: And sixty students work together in a group? Is it a project that is already designed, or do they work out how to design it and build it?

Wang Shu’s practice is grounded in a connection to place through memory.

Wang Shu’s practice is grounded in a connection to place through memory.

Image: Peter Bennetts

WS: Yeah, they work together. The first time that we did this, in 2002, I said that they couldn’t use traditional architectural materials; they must use other, alternative materials. Some of them wanted to build a house using a bicycle [laughs], some wanted to use car wheels, some wanted to use plastic fast food containers – many, many different materials. When we have a competition, we have a democratic vote on which one is better [laughs]. It’s about working together as a small community.

Every time we do it we change the process, and I say to the students, “On the first day you come to the school, you are the master, because you think about architecture, you want to deal with the practical problem; for the master it’s the same. The question is the same, the problem is the same, so from the first day you are the master. You already know architecture before you come in here. You are eighteen years old; you have a rich experience of architecture, so please remember what you know.”

HN: Have graduates of your course registered as architects? And have they gone into alternative practices, or do they then just slip into a conventional practice and come back to you saying “I’m so depressed. I have this great education and now I’ve got this really rubbish job”?

WS: Yeah, that often happens, but I believe that if they really put some seed on the ground, something will grow. It’s very interesting; in the first year of the course many people said to me, “Oh, your students won’t get jobs if you teach them like this.” But I said “I don’t care about it.” Every year in China we have ten thousand architecture students graduate. We just have twenty; it’s special [laughs]. I found everyone can get a job – many offices really want someone young with special, really special, knowledge.

HN: Culture and tradition are important. You were saying how the students bring eighteen years of life experience to the course – do you also build into the course other activities that continue cultural development?

WS: It’s very important, so we have many special things. For example, our students learn Chinese calligraphy. People often just talk about tradition, culture, history, but they don’t really do anything. Tradition means we should do something about it. For example, in the first year of the course our students learn about traditional carpentry skills. It’s important that they learn how to construct with bricks, with rammed earth and with concrete. The first two years are all about construction.

We also have many research projects for students. They do a lot of research in the cities, and especially in the countryside. I am focusing on development in the countryside in China, so we do research on the villages. I want to make the students understand that while architects in China are so busy, and with too many projects, they should still keep this habit of doing design and research in parallel.

HN: So connections to cultural traditions, particularly memory and meaning, is important, and research assists in this process.

WS: Tradition is important. In China, people really believe your name has a big influence on your fate. For example, Wang is a very, very old name in China — Wang means king. Shu also has a special meaning. Several years, no raining — then suddenly it’s raining.

HN: Ah, so you’re the rain king, you’re the rain maker! Perhaps this is very auspicious, that as the Pritzker Prize winner who is working in this drought of appreciation for cultural traditions, you may be the rain maker heralding a change in this climate.

WS: Maybe; people hope [laughs]. Many, many people hope that this can lead to a change in our development.

HN: You have a practice with your partner, Lu Wenyu, who is your life partner as well as your business partner. You’ve made a lot of public statements about how the Pritzker Prize is for her, and for the office. Do you think that it’s odd that you are singled out as the individual who gets the award, as opposed to the practice or the partnership?

WS: I only have one partner: my wife. From the very start of our studio to now, we have worked together every day, from the morning to the night. Usually I do the drawings and my wife discusses every step of the project with me. Mostly she controls the process; the design process, and how the engineer and I work together, because she has rich experience of this, and of how to control the construction process. She’s the master of this. It’s very important.

Further coverage of the 2012 National Architecture Conference.



Published online: 6 Nov 2012
Words: Helen Norrie, Wang Shu
Images: Peter Bennetts


Architecture Australia, September 2012

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