BEIJING — When architect Wang Shu accepts his field's richest prize in a ceremony Friday at the seat of China's legislature, a symbolic second winner will be waiting in the background – Hyatt Hotels.
The Pritzker Architecture Prize has special resonance for communist leaders who want to promote China as a global cultural power. Receiving it made Wang a celebrity in China. Until now, the 49-year-old had been little known outside architecture circles.
The $100,000 prize is sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, a separate entity from the business, Hyatt Hotels, which has no role in picking the winner. Still, the company's link to promoting Chinese culture abroad is a marketer's dream and could give the Hyatt name a boost with status-conscious government officials and some of the public.
"It's bound to have a positive impact for them," said Alistair Nicholas, a specialist in corporate image who is executive vice president for Asia of public relations firm Weber Shandwick. "Just being involved, that it's a prestigious award and that it's now been won by someone in China and the Hyatt name is connected to it is good for them."
Companies have long sponsored cultural and social activities in China, from scholarships to helping pay for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Donors often pick projects linked to their industries, which allows them to draw on their own skills and to build ties with officials who oversee their operations.
Coca-Cola Co. is supporting a government project to improve water supplies for sugarcane-growing areas. Engineering giant Siemens AG has donated water purification gear and provided hearing aids to medical charities.
General Motors Co. contributed $5 million for a research center for new vehicle power sources at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
While such projects fit Chinese government goals on education and the environment, they lack the Pritzker's glamor.
Wang, who works in Hangzhou, southwest of Shanghai, was praised by the Pritzker jury for work that blends traditional Chinese elements with modern lines and attention to the environment.
His most famous design is the Ningbo History Museum in Ningbo, south of Shanghai, built in 2008 using recycled bricks from older buildings.
Wang also has designed apartment complexes, a satellite campus for Hangzhou's China Academy of Art and a tea pavilion for the Shanghai Expo in 2010.
In a statement that echoed Chinese ambitious, Thomas J. Pritzker, whose family founded Hyatt, said in February that Wang's award "represents a significant step in acknowledging the role that China will play in the development of architectural ideals."
Hyatt has 19 hotels in China – including the Beijing Park Hyatt at the top of the 62-story Yintai Center, one of the capital's tallest towers – and 30 more under development. It says China is "central to Hyatt's global growth strategy."
The Pritzker was first awarded in 1979 to American Philip Johnson. Other recipients include Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando and Renzo Piano.
The 1983 winner, I.M. Pei, was born in China but left for the United States in 1935, long before the communists came to power in 1949.
Wang's prize is especially significant for a Chinese government that wants to promote "soft power" – influence abroad through social and cultural ties. Beijing has set up Confucius Institutes at universities and public schools in the United States and more than 100 other countries to teach Chinese language and culture.
"The Pritzker Prize is like a Nobel Prize in architecture," the newspaper Beijing Youth Daily said in March. "Wang Shu, the winner, should be widely admired by his countrymen for his achievement."
The win also could help to boost the status of other Chinese architects, said Nicholas.
"You see one Chinese architect win an award like this and you start to focus and say, there must be some interesting work going on in China," he said. "It does have an overall glow for the whole industry in China."
Pritzker Architecture Prize: http://www.pritzkerprize.com/