Beyond Wang Shu

In connection to the recent appointment of Wang Shu as this year's Pritzker Prize winner, I recall a thought that I had around the same time last year when the prize was given to Edouardo Souto de Moura. My first reaction at the time was, probably like many others, that this prize is out of date. Not that Souto de Moura is not an accomplished architect, but in relation to the long list of previous laureates, most of them already well-known to the general public when they got the prize, he is a local Portugues architect with solid practice and a few good buildings to his name. No masterpieces, but quite nice. There had been a few laureates in the past with similar scale of output, and Souto de Moura was perhaps better known than in the architecture world than Sverre Fehn by the time he got his prize. But there was another aspect that made me conclude that this kind of prize has played out its role. The previous year, the prize went to Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who work together but also run their own individual practices. As many of the previous laureates, they have discovered new territory in the field of architecture and also created a long line of followers in their home country and elsewhere. This can hardly be said about the modest Portuguese who is mostly known as a former disciple of master builder and laureate, Alvaro Siza. There was a sense of lack of imagination in the jury's choice. Without doubt, there were other people more qualified to enter this exclusive club solely based on their contribution to the field. Indeed, the political dimension of this kind of prestigious award; the implied geographical correctness often works as a block for giving the prize to the same country or region too often. Many issues make it problematic: Either the choice is too predictable, too controversial or not famous enough.

The most difficult thing to overcome though, is that an increasing amount of architecture practices are formed as collectives, without a recognizable "mastermind". All the efforts needed in the process of erecting a building are by definition in need of a collective, as everything from drafting a programme to design to construction has a number of agents who provide their part of the process. More importantly, many offices are set up so that a group collectively produce designs which are then selected, and therefore the principals work more as an editors rather than designers. This needn't reduce their influence in the design process or even the end result, but when a collective efforts of a practice of several hundred architects can be reduced to that of one, then I believe something has been missed.

Until this year's appointment of Wang Shu, I felt that giving this kind of prizes to individual architects somehow feels outdated in the current world of architecture. The whole idea of the eccentric architect sitting at his drafting table next to a dried-out cup of coffee at 10pm sketching on manifold with thick 8B pencil feels kind of murky, perhaps also because this is my experience growing up. The photo of Souto de Moura by his desk did not exactly help to erase this image.

After reading Brendan's comment in Domus that I wrote about earlier today, and getting his secondary comment, I felt I had to empty all my possible points of view on this matter, only to realise that the prize actually has a purpose, and that it can reach deeper into the system and attempt to execute its influence more than it ever has in the past. Wang Shu might still be young, perhaps too young (some of his work could use a little of Eduoardo's austerity) but he is bold and smart enough to understand how he can do the most good. He realized early in his career that building in China is about putting things together, through a poetic game of give and take with the craftsmen. So far, I have only seen a handful of building that was carried out in full according to the architect's drawings. There is simply too big a gap between what we envision and how this vision will be executed. The only way to achieve something new in architecture in China is to explore that gap, and to invent by combining the existing construction technologies into new typologies and methods.

There is actually not a big difference between the two most recent laureates. They are both simple, noncommercial, nonfamous architects firmly grounded in their local traditions. In the end, the revolutionary thing about this prize is the fact that it praises individuals, who distinguish themselves through a high level of integrity in a world where architects have taken part in the collective demolition and eradication of thousands of years of history.

The Pritzker prize will doubtlessly bring Wang Shu a lot of fame, not at least in China. But while this new spotlight has already caused an inflated sense of self-pride in the motherland,  Mr Wang himself will presumeably keep building his career with brick, tiles and mortar.

Because Wang Shu

 

In this recent op-ed in Domus Brendan McGetrick explains his view of why Wang Shu got the Pritzker Prize. Compared with my own hypothesis (which is less elegantly formulated below) it's less about geopolitics and more about the decline of trust in architects following a global financial crisis and consequent recession. Indeed, there is a geopolitical side to the jury recognizing China's rise as a political and cultural power in the world, but Brendan argues that it is Wang Shu's methods and low-tech amateur approach to architecture which carries the most significance in his (modest) oeuvre.

Indeed it is reasonable to engage in such a reading of the event, and I agree with Brendan's arguments. However, I would like to put forward another hypothesis: Contrary to the Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize and the recent ascent of Ai Weiwei into superstardom following his 81-day detention, the Pritzker is less of a diplomatic meltdown. It will not create a Norwegian salmon boycott in Zhongnanhai or ignite mass-demonstrations around the art world, but it will shed light into a dark and remote corner of architecture and urbanism in China, one that is rarely highlighted by the regime and enjoys little understanding by the industry.

Mr Wang not explicitly political, but in my mind his works evoke many of the same attitudes as presented by the two dissidents. By working with local materials and craftsmen he is creating his own individual interpretation of Chinese architecture traditions, not a reproduction of a "global" "modern" "style" as so many of his peers who simply reproduce their own and others' work for the weekly submission of some medium-size-city urban planning museum proposals and mixed-use suburban drop-down bombshell. In addition, this is also how Ai Weiwei bagan his career as a builder in the late 1990's, and there are many interesting parallels in their careers and approach to designing.

In this 2008 interview of Wang Shu by Bert de Muynck, he describes some of his own working methods and attitudes towards the contemporary architecture practice:

"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."

He also reveals the need for architects (in China and elsewhere) to be pragmatists and grant the clients their less admirable wishes, albeit with a sense of humour and political irony:

"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."

All in all, despite his own scepticism of the appointment ("I'm still so young!") I hope that the prize will help shift the focus of China's reconstruction (a lot of it will have to be rebuilt soon again) from large to small, from global to local and from Wang (king) to Shu (book, calligraphy, script).

Read Brendan's text for yourself here.