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Pritzker Prize goes to Wang Shu, 48-year-old Chinese architect

February 27, 2012 | 10:21 am

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It was only a matter of time.

The jury for the Pritzker Prize on Monday handed  architecture’s most prestigious award to Chinese architect Wang Shu, completing the Pritzker’s break from the famed globe-trotting architects from the U.S. and Europe that it once honored almost exclusively.

Wang, 48, who is based in Hangzhou, west of Shanghai, and runs a firm with his wife, Lu Wenyu, has a relatively low profile on the international architecture scene. He was a visiting professor at Harvard last year but has never designed a building outside China; he describes himself, in seeming earnest, as “just a local architect.”

PHOTOS: Pritzker Prize goes to Wang Shu

Like several recent Pritzker laureates, including Portugal’s Eduardo Souto de Moura, who won last year, he combines a spare, muscular formal language with an emphasis on craftsmanship and regional character.

Wang’s projects often include recycled bricks or roofing tiles salvaged from older buildings razed to make way for new construction. It’s clear that for the eight-member Pritzker jury -- which this year included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer as well as architects Zaha Hadid, Yung Ho Chang and Alejandro Aravena -- his firm’s intentionally imperfect work stood out as a thoughtful alternative to the sleekly generic towers that now dominate the skylines of rapidly expanding Chinese cities.

Still, it would be a mistake to see his work as old-fashioned or in any sense out of touch with currents in international architecture. His firm assembles those salvaged materials into powerful forms that are ruggedly contemporary and steer clear of saccharine readings of the past.

Wang happened to be visiting Los Angeles over the weekend, in advance of a long-scheduled lecture at UCLA on Monday night. He told me over lunch in downtown L.A. on Saturday that he is interested in exploring the kind of creativity that exists not in the architecture studio but out on the building site itself, as the construction process unfolds.

“These days in China many architects are very busy and have too many projects,” he said. “So they really don’t have any time to visit the building site. For me, when I go to the site I find joy in working with materials and touching real things. I find that very exciting.”

Wang, in fact, has shown an eagerness in several recent project to collaborate with -- and even cede design control to -- the contractors and construction workers who build his projects. That’s one reason he and his wife chose to call their firm, which they founded in 1997, “Amateur Architecture Studio.”

During the lunchtime conversation he grew most animated when talking about learning from carpenters and other craftsmen and about his interest in exploring “spontaneous” and “bottom-up” forms of architecture and city-making.

“Normally architects want to design every detail and control everything,” he said. “They think that’s the best way to make sure the work becomes perfect. I find that when the craftsmen can’t follow my drawings exactly, that’s when amazing things happen.”

He added, “When the craftsmen think they have done something perfectly on one of my buildings, I often tell them it’s not right. And often when they think it’s a mistake I will say, ‘No, it’s good, it’s good!’”

This approach has reached its fullest expression in two recent projects, both of which seem to have helped swing the Pritzker jury toward Wang.  One is the Ningbo History Museum, which was completed in 2008 and includes, Wang said, more than 1 million pieces of salvaged stone, brick and tile. The other is the Xingshan Campus of the China Academy of Art, where his firm has designed a connected group of buildings.

Wang is not the first Chinese-born architect to win the Pritzker; I.M. Pei, the 1983 laureate, was born in Guangzhou in 1917. But Pei was firmly established as a U.S.-based architect when he was honored.

Wang, by contrast, was educated and has spent his whole career in China. Born in 1963 in Urumqi, a city in the western part of the country, he later earned a pair of architecture degrees from the Nanjing Institute of Technology.

This year’s Pritzker is one of a growing number of indications that the architecture world is searching for ways to bring historicism back into the fold, at least when it is combined –- as is the case in Wang’s work -- with an unadorned and photogenic formal style. Wang has described his buildings as “templates for modern interpretations of the pagoda, the temple and the courtyard.”

But it is only recently, he added, that his work has been understood in terms of history.

“Before I designed the Xingshan campus and Ningbo History Museum, a lot of people thought of me simply as part of the avant-garde,” he told me. “When I finished those projects, some critics were very harsh. They said I had betrayed the modern movement.”

There is one lingering question about this year’s award: What about Wang’s wife and design partner, Lu Wenyu? In 1991 the Pritzker jury blundered by giving the award to Robert Venturi without honoring Denise Scott Brown, his wife and collaborator.

Over lunch I asked Wang if history was repeating itself. Particularly given his interest in collaboration, should his wife be sharing the Pritzker Prize with him?

“Yes,” he said. “Every time when I finish the first sketch of a building, she is the first one to see it. And if she doesn’t like it, I go back and draw it again.”

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Photo: The Ningbo History Museum, designed by Chinese architect Wang Shu, is shown in Ningbo, China. Credit: Associated Press/Amateur Architecture Studio via The Hyatt Foundation, Lv Hengzhong

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