INTERVIEW: Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Mixes MODERN AND Traditional In Changing China

Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu of Amateur Architecture photographed by Hailun Ma for PIN–UP.

“I’m standing here alone because my partner, my wife Lu Wenyu, doesn’t like to speak in public.” These are the words with which Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese architect Wang Shu opens most lectures on his work. Founded in 1997 in Hangzhou, Shu and Wenyu’s firm, Amateur Architecture, is celebrated for a highly original approach mixing traditional craftsmanship, modern construction techniques, and recycled materials (recycling being an old Chinese tradition) that constitutes something of a cultural revolution in China, a country which, architecturally at least, has long been deaf to the past amidst the thunderous roar of accelerating redevelopment. Inaugurated three years after the firm’s founding, the couple’s breakthrough building was the library at Wenzheng College in Suzhou (1998–2000), which, despite borrowing from ancient-Chinese garden philosophy, seemed, with its immaculately abstract white volumes, somehow still too Western to Shu after they’d completed it. Over the course of the next decade, he and Wenyu would go on to build a seminal series of large-scale projects — the monumental Ningbo History Museum (2008), for example, or the renovation of Hangzhou’s imperial Zhongshan Road (2007–09) — that borrowed both from the Chinese philosophy of landscape painting, whose static depictions of mountains simultaneously encompass the macro and the micro, and from traditional Chinese craft as still found in the countryside — wa pan (a dry-walling technique used to rebuild typhoon-damaged houses in a mosaic of recycled materials), rammed-earth and bamboo construction, and ancestral roof-timbering and -tiling methods. It was this remarkable body of work that earned Wang the 2012 Pritzker Prize, an award which brought him greater clout in his homeland and has allowed Amateur Architecture to intervene in what they feel is the crux of future development in China — “the last battle” as Shu terms it — the countryside. In the absence of the media-shy Wenyu, Shu took the time to run through his career trajectory with PIN–UP, from student rebel to fêted savant, setting it in the paradoxical context of government-controlled “state capitalism” as practiced in China’s socialist market economy.

Fuyang Cultural Complex, 2016. © Iwan Baan

Andrew Ayers: Although the 2012 Pritzker Prize was awarded to you alone, you’ve always made it clear that without your wife, Lu Wenyu, your studio’s work wouldn’t exist. How did the two of you meet?
Wang Shu: We were at architecture school in Nanjing together. I’m older than Lu (Shu was born in 1963, Wenyu three years later), so I graduated first, and when I decided to move Hangzhou, she followed me. Before we really worked together, Lu was working at a huge national design institute with 3,000 engineers — there are many like this in China, mostly building enormous civil-engineering projects and infrastructure. When I first started out, my designs were somehow still very Western. Lu was working at the institute, and we used to discuss architecture together — its meaning in relation to local culture and life. Because when we studied architecture in school, we weren’t taught anything about China.

So what did they teach you?
Our education system is very similar to the French beaux-arts system. In China we didn’t originally have architects: traditionally thinking was done by scholars, who were painters, poets, government officers, and philosophers. So you had scholars on the one hand, and craftsmen on the other. Architectural education as we understand it began in China in the 1920s: there were Chinese who went to study architecture in the U.S., at a time when many of those teaching in the States had been educated in France, so they came back to China having been taught in the beaux-arts system and set up something similar here. The beaux-arts system is basically about drawings — you think something abstract and then draw it as plans and sections. But there’s almost no teaching with respect to materials, construction, or craftsmanship. If the system is very stable it’s okay, but the moment it isn’t stable, when new techniques and materials are coming in, it means everything changes, and architects lose their feeling for things. But in China very few people think about this.

What about engineers in China?
Engineers just construct technical works — they don’t generally have much feeling about design. Architects, who are closer to artists, struggle with engineers. If the engineer wants to control the architects, this usually means something bad will result! (Laughs.)

How does it work for you with engineers?
The problem is that generally architects don’t know anything about technique, materials, or the construction process — that’s why it’s so easy for engineers to control them. But on the other hand, traditionally in China things are more related to the craftsmanship system. Which means that you should know materials, you should know craftsmanship. If you don’t, this tradition will come to an end. So this was why I thought that maybe I should do things differently.

Fuyang Cultural Complex, 2016. © AAS

At what point did you become discontented with what you were learning in architecture school?
Every day I fought with the teachers! I was almost the student leader in the fight against them. At the end I wrote very critical final papers and they refused to give me the degree. It was a very famous event in China! (Laughs.) It was totally different for my wife, who was working at the institute, which meant she had a stable income that allowed me to survive after leaving school. I started doing small renovation jobs on old buildings. With small jobs you can both design and construct. So I was responsible for everything: design, choosing and buying materials, looking for the craftsmen, working with them, everything!

Is this something other architects did after finishing school?
No. Economic development was just beginning in China, and architects suddenly became very busy and started earning big money. By directly working with craftsmen, I abandoned my professional status and went down to the lowest level. (Laughs.) And every day my wife supported me. She took a great interest in what I was doing, and after work she would go to the site I was working on. So we did a series of very small experimental jobs: a restaurant, a little theater, an office…

What kind of craft techniques were you learning on these projects?
It was very basic: how to use brick, how to use wood and steel structurally, how to do construction drawings. Never having worked in one of the institutes, I didn’t know how to do technical drawings. I invented my own way directly on site, but the craftsmen couldn’t understand what I drew! (Laughs.) Of course my wife learned it in the design institute, and as time went on she gained some very important experience in her job which has been very helpful in our later work.

What kind of projects was she working on there?
Very large projects — big housing blocks and office buildings. So gradually she got to know how the whole process operates, from design to construction at all different levels. She’s the professional. And if you want to take on large-scale projects, this is very important. She was up there, I was down here. (Laughs.) From 1988 to 1992 or 3, almost five years, I was doing a lot of small-scale work. But I felt I still lacked something, because there wasn’t really any relation to local life or landscape. Hangzhou is a very famous traditional Chinese landscape city with incredible mountains and a river. I was very busy every day and had almost no time to drink tea or see the lake or go for a trek in the mountains. So I decided I needed time for life. I stopped working, and my wife supported me again. We stopped so as to be able to rethink our tradition and to observe the incredibly rich details of ordinary people’s everyday lives. At school I was famous, but later they started asking, “Where’s Wang Shu? He was such an interesting young man. What’s happened to him?” (Laughs.) Because basically I’d dropped out of the system. But it was very important to me. Gradually I found out what I really preferred. My wife also felt that way. So we started our own small studio

Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu of Amateur Architecture photographed by Hailun Ma for PIN–UP.

Did Lu Wenyu carry on with her job at the institute when you started?
Yes. For her starting the studio was amateur work! (Laughs.) We founded our office in 1997 in our very small apartment unit. Just the two of us. We started gradually, doing small projects for friends. Then we got lucky, because in 1998 one of my friends, who was designing the enormous Wenzheng College campus, told me he’d kept the most important building just for me — the library. So I had the chance to design a new 100,000-square-foot library in Suzhou. It was the first time I designed a building that had a strong relation to landscape, water, and mountains. I borrowed ideas from the Chinese traditional garden system, and used a small building to destroy big buildings. It’s the best philosophy: start from the detail to fight the system. A huge building is also a system, so it’s about how you can use a small detail to destroy the system. (Laughs.) It’s not just about design, it’s like a struggle. This is the philosophy.

So there’s something of a political stance in there too?
Yes. It’s going back to the scholar system. A scholar in China is someone who thinks independently of the government. So that’s why I started saying that if you really want to become a good architect, you should become a scholar first. In China, almost every architect knows what I mean. At that time, in 2000, I was also reading my PhD degree in Shanghai, at Tongji University.

Why did you begin a PhD?
If I really wanted to restart my architectural career, I needed to get back into the system, and the PhD was my way back. I decided to write a sharp critique of Chinese city development. Basically it was a discussion about the fact that one day we will have almost totally destroyed our traditions. And then, when I graduated in 2000, our studio’s first big building, the library, was finished. I think this was a very important event in Chinese architecture, because people saw, “Ah, a very special new building has emerged.”

Is the library still standing?
The majority yes, but a small part has been demolished. (Laughs.) That’s China. If it was built in 2000 it’s now considered old.

  1. Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu of Amateur Architecture photographed by Hailun Ma for PIN–UP.

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Where does this Chinese cult of the new come from?
It’s all market-driven: people just want to get money, which means you have to get the whole system moving. It’s crazy! And it wastes a lot of resources. Even a building constructed 15 years ago is considered old.

You can understand it in Tokyo, where they have frequent earthquakes, so there’s a tradition of buildings not lasting terribly long, but that’s not the case in most of China...
We don’t have earthquakes — we are earthquakes! (Laughs.) The Chinese attitude is, “What’s the meaning of the market? The market means that things move!” 

Within that system, where buildings are considered old at 15, does one take that limited lifespan into consideration and design what is in effect a temporary structure? Or do you build every time for eternity?
That’s a good question. In fact people still design everything like it’s going to be there in 500 years. (Laughs.) But there are tricks they use: they’ll do a design with outside decoration and inside decoration, and maybe the following year they’ll change the façade and/or the inside and it will all be totally different! It’s very funny. Architectural design gradually becomes graphic design.

What happened to you after your PhD?
I returned to Hangzhou, where I found a place in the system but also outside it — the art academy. The China Academy of Art in Hangzhou is very famous for its new-art movement, but later they also got interested in architecture. In the 1990s I had several friends at the art academy — young teachers and artists — and when I came back in 2000 they were running it. This is how I got the chance to start a new architecture department, at a time when architecture wasn’t taught at any art schools in China. I was given entirely free rein — I got to decide what I wanted to teach, how to teach it, everything! So we combined the contemporary-art system with the craftsman system to develop a totally new type of Chinese architecture. The first year there was only one teacher — me — and 20 students. The second year I invited another teacher, an artist, to teach with me. His name is Ai Weiwei. He was my first appointment. (Laughs.) The second was my wife — she finally left the institute to teach with me. That was the beginning. Now we have 40 teachers and 700 students!

  1. Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, 2007. © Iwan Baan

  2. Ningbo History Museum, 2008. © Iwan Baan

Do former students work with you in your office?
Today we have almost ten people.

Only ten? That’s tiny.
Not tiny, it’s quite large. Four years ago we only had six.

How do you manage with so few?
Fewer means it’s easier to manage. In China, almost everyone in the architecture field knows that our studio only accepts one commission a year — so that we can fully control that commission. Which means six people are enough. After I got the prize, there was a lot of pressure: “You should do more, make more of a contribution to society!” So now we accept two commissions a year — exactly double!

You’ve talked about memory and tradition with respect to your reuse of materials, but is there also an environmental, ecological aspect to it?
For me this a very contemporary problem in China. Because there are all these large-scale demolitions, all these beautiful materials and rubbish strewn everywhere, it can make you feel pain here. (Points to breast.) But almost no Chinese architects are concerned or angry about that. They don’t care! I can’t not react, I had to give some response to this situation, my wife also felt the same way, so we started using recycled materials in small experimental projects. And we discovered that in fact it’s incredibly cheap. People only want what’s new, they don’t want old! In 2002 we won the competition for the new Xiangshan Campus at the Art Academy in Hangzhou, but the construction budget was incredibly low — 50% less than the usual average price in China. They wanted good architecture that could compete at international standards, but for half the price! How could we do that? I thought, “Maybe we can use recycled materials. They’re cheap — 50% less than the usual price for new materials.” And the president of the academy accepted the idea. Of course in an art school it was easier, the artists got it; elsewhere it would have been impossible, because nobody wants anything old. So we built this large campus — 30 buildings, over 2 million square feet — using more than seven-million recycled pieces. But you wouldn’t believe the quantity and variety of recycled materials on the market. If people find out you’re using recycled materials they start ringing you up saying, “Do you want my bricks? I have two million!” “I have three-million tiles, would you like them?”

Zhongshan Road, 2009. © Iwan Baan

How extraordinary that people are recycling all of this in a context where everyone only wants new stuff.
In fact in China we have a long history and tradition of recycling materials. So people still have this reflex: when they demolish, they recover and stock the materials. But nobody needs them! So if you come along wanting to use a large amount, people are incredibly happy. But we wanted to use materials differently, in the craftsmanship system, which is different from the modern concrete system. So the two systems coexist together.

How do you weld the two systems together? Is there a general method you use or is it different every time?
Actually it’s a little bit of a technical secret! (Laughs.) It’s a bit complex, because we’re not just using a wall, we’re using a roof that’s often continuous with the interior. There are lots of small details we have to test, and for all of them we always do a 1:1 prototype first. For the art-academy campus we did over 30 test pieces. It helps to get the client to accept and to get the craftsmen to understand what we want — because often the workers don’t know how to build our designs at first.

That’s a lot of prototypes!
We tell clients up front about our method. If they accept this condition then we accept the commission. I think that architecture should create a chance for the craftsmen in the sense of providing enough work to allow the craftsmanship system to survive. So this is why we accept these very large projects on which we insist that recycled materials and craftsmen be used. It’s very important.

Is there emulation of what you’re doing, a Wang Shu-Lu Wenyu school as it were?
Yes, it’s gradually turning into a sort of new movement in China. There are more and more young architects who are following our way. We’ve shown by example that it’s possible, and the young generation is picking up on that. 

  1. Wa Shan Guesthouse, 2013. © Iwan Baan

  2. Wa Shan Guesthouse, 2013. © Iwan Baan

To go back to this question of the rate of renewal in China, do you design with that in mind? Are your buildings done in such a way that they can be easily taken apart and recycled?
That’s a good question. In fact gradually we started to think about this issue, and designed buildings that can be recycled in part. It doesn’t mean the whole building will be demolished. In the Chinese tradition it’s like that: when you look at an old wooden building and say, “This was built 1,000 years ago,” my reply is, “Really? That could just stand there for 1,000 years? No. It’s impossible.” (Laughs.)

Of course — they’re constantly being repaired and remade.
Yes. In fact this means it’s a system of recycling. So some parts date from 500 years ago, but there are parts — a beam here, a column there — that have been changed, often many, many times. So the building remains, but it’s a kind of system.

A living organism almost.
Yes. So the way we now design our buildings is, I think, similar to that. The basic structure is there, but the materials can change. We use recycled materials, then other people can recycle them again.

You’ve talked about how China is developing so fast, but how much is government-initiated and how much is a question of private enterprise? If you want to change the system, how do you do that?
My wife and I and our studio are only ten people. But on the other hand I think that what we do sends out a strong message: China can make a different choice, we can go in a different direction. This is the meaning of our work. But then China right now is like a high-speed train: it’s very hard to stop. Many people take an interest in our work, this is why we can survive. Even in the government there are some officials who understand what we do. Usually we’re fighting the system, but many individuals like to cooperate with us. This is why we can get commissions from the government, because it’s not “the government,” but someone in the government. And government-commissioned projects are still better than private ones. Investors just want to make money, whereas the government has some responsibility towards the public realm.

City Cultural Center of Jinhua, 2013. © Zeng Han

You’ve talked about your interest in the countryside.
Yes. This is the last battlefield in Chinese culture I think. It’s all about the future, because what gets built in the countryside will be of great significance for Chinese development. That’s why I shifted our attention to construction in the countryside. Now every year when we accept one more project, it’s generally in the countryside. Usually we do just one village over a period of four, five, six years, a very slow process that’s totally different from our projects in cities. I think it’s good to have these two parallel lines of work. Where the countryside is concerned, every year we find time to do research and we learn a lot — we intervene in the countryside but we also learn something from the countryside which we then use in our city projects.

What kind of things?
Oh, materials, craftsmanship — it all comes from the countryside in fact. We started working in the countryside very early on, just after 2000, but at the outset very few people understood what we were doing. So we were almost powerless to do anything there; we did a lot of research, but no real work. And then in 2012 I got the prize, and suddenly people were interested and we were able to do projects in the countryside. But still not everybody understands, although a few are beginning to get what we’re doing. We’ve now finished one village (Wencun, up in the mountains to the northwest of Hangzhou), which has since become very famous and many people visit it. It was completed in 2015, and now, four years later, many young Chinese architects are following our lead and developing projects in the countryside. Last year’s Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale was all about the countryside — five or six years ago that was unimaginable.

  1. Ningbo History Museum, 2008. © Iwan Baan

  2. Ningbo History Museum, 2008. © Iwan Baan

You’ve been talking about villages, but a village relies on how the land around it is used — how does that play into what you’re trying to achieve?
It’s actually rather complex. If you look at the Chinese Pavilion in Venice you’ll find all these architects working in the countryside, but none of the projects will really be used by local people. Instead it’s about investment coming from the city for the building of hotels, artist’s studios, a teahouse, a bookstore. Only our project is about housing local people. It’s very difficult in fact, because the system in China means that a village isn’t independent — all the resources are controlled by government. You have to get the government to agree to do something, but government alone isn’t enough, the people living in the countryside must also agree that your intervention is pertinent. So it’s a complex relationship between government, local people, architects, and construction companies all working together. It’s something new. It means developing an entirely new system.

You’ve talked about scale — that you only accepted large-scale commissions because you wanted to set an example — but how large would you go? If someone asked you to do an urbanism plan for a giant new city, would you accept?
Up till now I’ve always felt there were projects that were too large for me that I couldn’t do. For example, one client wanted me to plan a new city with a population of two-million people. I asked him a couple of questions: “Where are these two-million people? Who are they? Do you have strong industry here? Something that can support this population?” No! So I simply had to refuse. (Laughs.)

There are reports of huge new cities in China where no one lives.
Yeah, but the funny thing is that though no one’s living in them, every dwelling has been sold. It’s a sort of bank — those apartments represent people’s savings. Traditionally the Chinese don’t believe in banks, they believe in something solid! (Laughs.)

Text by Andrew Ayers.

Portraits by Hailun Ma.