Wang Shu: Local Hero [2008]

Wang Shu | Amateur Architecture Studio
Wang Shu | Amateur Architecture Studio

Chinese architect Wang Shu uses far-fetched metaphors as he talks about his work. Walking towards his latest creation, the Ningbo Historic Museum, he constantly refers to it as a mountain. Today, however, weather conditions are helpful. It’s raining, and a blanket of fog blurs the view. From afar, the mesmerizing grey monolith does look like a huge lump of natural stone.

Wang Shu 王澍 and his wife, Lu Wenyu 陆文宇, are the principals of Amateur Architecture Studio 业余建筑工作室. The office derives its name from his analysis of the current state of affairs in China. ‘Built spontaneously, illegally and temporarily,’ he says, ‘amateur architecture challenges professional architecture but is generally considered to be insignificant. Professional architects think of buildings too much as physical objects, in my opinion. They can learn from amateurs in that respect.’

A professor at the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, Wang Shu is one of the few Chinese architects with a clear insight into the mechanisms underlying the development – or should I say ‘non-development’? – of architecture and cities in China. And you won’t find him hopping on the international train that so many of China’s young, so-called ‘avant-garde’ architects are riding. Wang Shu’s architecture is neither a protest nor an alternative to the numbing work, both foreign and domestic, that is preventing China from building a future distinctly its own. In search of identity and creativity, Wang Shu explores the rich legacy of China’s intellectual and architectural history and subsequently takes a seemingly simple approach to architecture that culminates in astonishing creations.

Wang Shu | Amateur Architecture Studio | MARK#19
Wang Shu | Amateur Architecture Studio | MARK#19

Having met him earlier on the Xiangshan campus in Hangzhou, I now join Wang Shu in Ningbo, the location of some of his more recent buildings. Our conversation ranges from the absurdities and realities of the construction process in China to his concern for the ‘common life’ and his ambition to be a local architect. While the term ‘critical regionalism’ aptly describes his architecture, I sense another attitude underpinning his work. Like the statues of Buddha found in mountain caves – placed there as sources of reflection and inspiration – Wang Shu is deep within Chinese culture. He is not there to meditate in silence, however, but to build and to be heard.

The Ningbo Historic Museum is the result of an international competition held in 2004. What is the main concept underlying the design?

Wang Shu: I combined two ways of thinking: I envisioned it as both a small city and a small mountain. Ningbo is a new Chinese city with standard urban planning, featuring wide roads, big squares and low building density. This is a bad urban model, because it doesn’t take into account China’s vast population. I work in the city because I want to improve its structure. But here I can’t do anything; the place is so empty. So I designed the building as a small city in its own right. On a different note, I want my architecture to tell people what life in this city used to look like. Ten years ago this was a very beautiful harbour city. Now everything is demolished. So I collected and recycled building materials from the area. For this reason, even though I won the competition, local government officials didn’t like my design.

Historic Museum (Ningbo) | Amateur Architecture Studio
Historic Museum (Ningbo) | Amateur Architecture Studio

Why not?

WS: They think theirs is a modern city that needs a modern building. But when the building was finished and the people saw the real thing, they loved it. I think it’s a very interesting process. You look at some architecture on paper and like it immediately, but people seeing something like this have a hard time imagining how it will be built and what it will look like. It’s beyond their thinking and experience.

An important aspect of your approach is the relationship between architecture and landscape design. In today’s Chinese cities, that relationship seems to be lost. How come?

WS: In China we have lost the tradition of building cities and of creating architecture that is part of the landscape. In my design for the Hangzhou campus, for instance, I positioned the buildings at the foot of the Xiangshan (Elephant) Mountain in such a way that each building enters into a different dialogue with the mountain, offering various views of it. To me, a building as an object isn’t important. It’s the building’s relation to nature that most interests me. I have tried to develop some new building types on the campus. In China we have a limited amount of building types we can put together to make a city. We’re in need of some alternatives, so we developed new prototypes – like the courtyard building and the water building. They are templates for modern interpretations of the pagoda, the temple and the courtyard. Many of my buildings are similar to the Chinese garden: they have many entrances, and it’s not clear where the main entrance is.

Xiangshan Campus (Huangzhou) | Amateur Architecture Studio
Xiangshan Campus (Huangzhou) | Amateur Architecture Studio

The façades of your buildings are often composed of recycled bricks and tiles. Are the resulting patterns designed or accidental? How much control do you have over all the bricklaying involved?

WS: In the eastern part of this province, near the sea, people suffer from typhoons, which cause many houses to collapse. They don’t have a lot of time to rebuild them, so they put the bricks back together randomly. I find the resulting architecture very beautiful. I did design the pattern on the walls of this museum. When the construction process started, people worked behind a scaffold. It was very secretive. Nobody saw what was happening, including me. Obviously, the craftsmen changed my design, but when they took the scaffold down I loved it, precisely because it was beyond my control.

In your design process, you combine writing, painting, calligraphy and sketching. Can you explain how this works?

WS: I design very similarly to the traditional Chinese painter. I don’t sketch very much, but I do study cities, valleys and mountains. Then I stop. I think for about a week and don’t draw. In the case of this museum, one night I couldn’t sleep and suddenly it emerged. To me, every design is about both poetic thinking and mathematics. I sat on the bed, drew it in my mind and calculated the size of the building. When that was done, I took a small piece of paper and a pencil. I drew everything directly: numbers, structure, size, space, stairs, where to locate the entrance, functions and so on. Then I drank tea. During the second stage of a project, I use a pencil and a ruler for very accurate plans and sections, showing the positions of windows and doors. I give the work to my assistants. They draw it again, using the computer. When that is finished, we discuss the material and the details. This month I have to design three museums, so my studio stops working for one month. Everybody goes home, so I can work on my own. I send them to the countryside for research or give everybody a list of books about traditional Chinese painting, French philosophers, movies or any subject that might be helpful. This is their homework. When they come back, we have a discussion, and then we work again.

Ceramic House (Jinhua) | Amateur Architecture Studio
Ceramic House (Jinhua) | Amateur Architecture Studio

You seldom work with commercial developers, choosing instead to work in most cases with local governments. Do you find the process of creating while negotiating with commercial developers too difficult?

WS: There are three very difficult stages during the building process. The first is how to convince the government. The second deals with designing designing working details and with other construction issues. Many architects fail in this stage. They may have a good idea, but more often than not it’s poorly executed. The third stage is the hardest of all. When a building is finished, the Chinese rarely think of it as a work of art. They treat is as a container with many functions that they can change randomly and at will. This is very difficult for me. I can control the first and second stages, but I have no influence on the third. In the Contemporary Art Museum in Ningbo, for example, we designed two large floors. When we presented our plan, local authorities told me they had the money to build the museum, but no money to operate it. They needed a space they could let out in order to generate money. I told them that, apart from selling fish, they could do whatever they wanted on the ground floor to make money. But art should be on the first floor. When I said this to the mayor I used Marxist theory, explaining that a basement is about economy and an upper floor about art. I hope he got the joke.

Art Museum (Ningbo) | Amateur Architecture Studio | Amateur Architecture Studio
Art Museum (Ningbo) | Amateur Architecture Studio | Amateur Architecture Studio

Does this unthoughtful attitude reflect a lack of respect for the architect?

WS: The architect is now in higher esteem than ten years ago. But people don’t consider architecture to be art. They might think a building is more or less beautiful, but that’s not enough. I do not think people really understand my ideas and what I try to achieve, but maybe in ten years they will.

Do you see yourself as an international architect, like Ma Qingyung or Ma Yangsong?

WS: They are really international. I’m just a local architect. I’m not smart enough to be as fashionable as they are.

Five Scattered Houses (Ningbo) | Amateur Architecture Studio
Five Scattered Houses (Ningbo) | Amateur Architecture Studio

But would you like to be? To me, it seems as though your architecture explains more about the reality of China than some of your colleagues’ buildings.

WS: A good architect should have a thorough experience of the society he comes from. Between 1990 and 2000 I had no commissions, and I did not want a government or academic position either. I just wanted to work with craftsmen, gain experience on the ground and take no responsibility for the design – only for the construction. So I worked in the lowest levels of our society. Every day I worked at building sites from eight in the morning until midnight. While working and eating with the craftsmen, I started to wonder what had happened to our experience of tradition. Gradually, I gained confidence while learning everything about construction methods. Continuity is very important in my opinion. Tradition is continuity. During those years I began studying the history of art in Europe, India, Africa and America; as well as philosophy, movies and contemporary art – a practice I continue today. I believe in starting with a broad vision and condensing it to fit the local situation.

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“Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN)”
Published in Mark Magazine #19 April-May 2009.

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UPDATE: Wang Shu is the winner of the 2012 Pritzker Prize!
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Other publications in MARK Magazine:
A Letter from Beijing | MARK #09 [Jul-Aug 2007]
An interview with Ai Weiwei /FAKE Design | MARK #12 [Feb-Mar 2008]
Olympic Architecture | MARK #14 [Jun-Jul 2008]
Babel for Billionaires | MARK #15 [Aug-Sep 2008]
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | MARK #16 [Oct-Nov 2008]
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | Mark #17 [Dec 2008 - Jan 2009]