Wang Shu, probably China’s most revered contemporary architect, grew up during the tumultuous years of Mao’s cultural revolution. This, I thought, would make a good starting point for an interview. So, I asked Wang Shu, sitting in the V&A café in London’s South Kensington, how were those years of physical and cultural deprivation? How was it to be a child in that atmosphere of dread?
“Oh, it was paradise,” he answers with the broadest of grins. He goes on: “For my parents’ generation of course it was a disaster, but for a child it was wonderful. School was stopped and, apart from having to spend two hours each day reading the works of Chairman Mao, we could play all day and read books. I read all the classics, Chinese and western, Balzac, Zola, Dickens.”
Wang’s round face is surprisingly cheerful and open (I had, for some reason, expected him to be austere and severe). Now 49, he cuts an intriguing figure in Chinese architecture. In a country where the new and the shiny is revered, where the past is being mercilessly obliterated in favour of the ruthlessly new, Wang Shu’s magnificent Ningbo History Museum (in Zhejiang province) stands like a castle in the open centre of the city and history is engrained in its fabric. It is built from bricks and tiles recycled from the buildings that were demolished to enable its construction. Its massive walls are striated, revealing strata of variegated fabric, slivers of the past.
Although born in Urumqi in the far northwest of China (a city further from a sea than anywhere else on earth), Wang spent much of his childhood in a Beijing hutong, the traditional Chinese brick-built courtyard house. “I was sent back to my grandma’s house,” he tells me. “It was a big family with lots of people living together, there was a sense of the private and the public life of the community.”
“I liked drawing then and I drew many things on the grey brick walls of the hutong. I went back [as an adult] and they were all still there. But just when I won the Pritzker prize they were destroying the house. To make way for a national philosophy centre.” He laughs.
The announcement in February 2012 that Wang Shu had won the $100,000 Pritzker prize, architecture’s richest and most prestigious award, surprised everyone. It was true that the awards last year were held in Beijing’s vast Great Hall of the People and there were some mutterings about how his win had been an expedient choice – but probably from those who hadn’t heard of him. For those who knew his work, even if only from photos, the choice of the first Chinese winner (if we discount Chinese-American IM Pei) was inspired.
The wholesale rebuilding of China in the past couple of decades has been a phenomenon. It is building more – and faster – than anywhere else in the world ever has. Wang’s considered, thoughtful architecture is both response to and critique of China’s construction hyperinflation. His practice, where he works in partnership with his wife Lu Wenyu, is called Amateur Architecture Studio. I asked him why that was.
“‘Amateur’ has many different levels of meaning,” he says. “First there is anger at the professional, at what they are doing. Architecture has a meaning beyond what is being built, the skyscrapers and the towers. A house is different to a building, it is part of everyday life – it is not a monument. The architects and urban planners who are rebuilding China have no understanding of tradition, no understanding of life. Their buildings are abstract, pure – amateur work is more rough and …” he hesitates, “dirty”. He giggles.
“Secondly,” he continues, “professional means perfect and perfect means no mistakes. But we know that everyone makes mistakes and that they can be very beautiful things.” There is a bit of a pause. “And thirdly I want to keep my freedom. If I want to do this I can. If I want to stop – I can.”
And, for a long time, he did – stop, that is. In the 1990s, lacking commissions, he eschewed the familiar role of the architect for something more akin to the traditional role of the master craftsman, at the head of his crew. “We worked on the site from 8.00 in the morning till midnight every day and I could become familiar with every level of construction, with every part of the process.”
In some ways it is tempting to compare Wang Shu with Ai Wei Wei. Both use tradition and modernity to create works that are an inherent critique of contemporary China. But the comparison doesn’t quite work. Whereas Ai is overtly political, using every aspect of his life as well as his art as part of a campaign of political resistance, Wang is more circumspect about politics and less willing to become a figurehead. “In China,” he says, “the political and the economic are the same and China’s politics has one aim – to keep the country stable.” And architecture – surely building in China must be a political act? “Architecture in China has one meaning,” he replies. “Business. The more political, the more commercial.
“People in China have become agitated, unsettled. There is no inner peace, no patience. People seem to have lost their feelings about real life, how to enjoy things, how to enjoy the seasons.” Is that because of growing materialism, I ask? “Materials,” he says, gnomically. “But people have lost their feelings about materials too.” I wonder if he has misunderstood me. “Materials are about our lives. It is a high level of craftsmanship which gives us confidence in the real things that we have around us. Real life is a mix of new and old materials and things and that’s why I use recycled materials, things that have history but also because I dislike waste – which is a Chinese tradition. The Chinese have forgotten everything about tradition. They see this in my work and they think it is something new.”
I ask if he would like to build beyond China – so far he hasn’t. “I’m interested in differences,” he replies. “If I did something outside China it would be to learn something about that culture. The more time I spend abroad the more I find that there are so many similarities but it is the small differences which make cultures. Maybe I could do something in a different country too.”
Meanwhile there is a range of new projects. “There’s a guesthouse,” he says, “at the China Academy of Art [in Hangzhou, where he is dean] and it’s a new approach.” Wang has already built a number of striking buildings on the campus, using timber, bamboo and brick to create buildings that appear part of the landscape yet resolutely contemporary. “It will have a 130m-long wooden roof, the longest in China, and rampart walls. It is in a picturesque tradition and it is an experiment that is only possible because it is inside the campus. Outside of there no one would ever invest in it.”
He is not, however, particularly pessimistic about the future. “I can see some good changes now,” he says. “The government is beginning to look at the environment. But while they are concentrating on GDP and building high-rises, the most important thing is justice. Local government didn’t care about the conservation of the village and the house and now they are seeing what we have lost, a whole social, cultural system.” Does this mean that the government is beginning to look more favourably on his work? “Some government officials have approached me and said ‘Maybe there is something. Maybe we don’t need so many landmarks.’ Maybe we can have a different way.” And he laughs again with a broad, beaming smile.