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Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu speaks to packed house at UCLA

February 28, 2012 |  3:07 pm

Wang ShuThirty minutes into Wang Shu's lecture at UCLA on Monday night, the freshly minted winner of the Pritzker Prize had yet to talk about any of his own projects.

The overflow crowd at Perloff Hall shifted a bit in their seats, presumably wondering when the man they'd packed in to hear would start showing the buildings that won him architecture's top honor. Instead, Wang talked about Chinese landscape painting, Proust and the rapid pace of urbanization in Chinese cities -- including Hangzhou, where he lives and works and where, he said, 90% of the traditional urban fabric has been destroyed over the last two decades to make way for new construction.

"Hangzhou is a small city, by Chinese standards," he said, waiting a beat to set up his joke. "Only 7 million people."

PHOTOS:Architecture of China, Wang Shu

The long preamble, by turns ruminative, wry and philosophical, was a fitting introduction to Wang's approach to architecture and his unusual résumé. After earning two degrees from the Nanjing Technical Institute and designing a small youth center, Wang took a detour and spent nearly a decade working on construction crews, learning the craft of building and the potential -- aesthetic as well as structural -- of various materials.

That experience turned out to be crucial once he and his wife, Lu Wenyu, founded the firm Amateur Architecture Studio in 1997. The name is a reflection of the couple's interest in the rich tradition in China of vernacular architecture built by anonymous craftsmen.

Over time -- as Wang explained once he began showing slides of his work, about 45 minutes in -- they developed a method of design and construction that uses pieces of brick, stone and tile, salvaged from demolished buildings, as the basis of a new architecture.

Xingshan campus

This isn't mere decoration, a way to dress up otherwise sleek modern construction. And it certainly isn't an attempt to create new buildings that impersonate old ones.

"I don't do fake old things," Wang said. "Copies. No way. Never."

In building the Xingshan campus of the Chinese Art Academy in Hangzhou, where Wang leads the architecture department, the firm used more than 7 million recycled pieces. More than 1 million helped make up the arrestingly imprecise facade of the Ningbo History Museum, which was finished in 2008. That project was reportedly a favorite of the Pritzker jurors, who this year included the architects Zaha Hadid and Alejandro Aravena and the U.S. Supreme Court justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Throughout the talk Wang had made clear that he most enjoys work that allows him to operate at two scales at once, both literally and symbolically. For the Xingshan campus the firm designed the master plan and the individual buildings, which display a typical focus on materiality and detail.

In a broader sense, his firm's work is meant to both stand on its own architectural merits, using muscular contemporary forms, and offer a forceful critique of headlong Chinese urbanization.

"In 1950 Hangzhou looked like Paris," he said. "Now it looks like Singapore. People are beginning to ask, 'What is the aim of all this development?'"

After all, he added, "If we lose our tradition, we lose our future.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photos, from top: Wang Shu. Credit: Zhu Chenzhou.

Amateur Architecture Studio's Xingshan Campus of the China Art Academy. Credit: Lv Hengzhong.

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