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Julian Baird Gewirtz

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A Pritzker Prize With Chinese Characteristics

Posted: 03/12/2012 11:30 am

Last week, the jury for the Pritzker Prize -- the highest honor in architecture -- announced that it had awarded the prize to Chinese architect Wang Shu. "Wang who?" would have been a reasonable reaction: Wang certainly doesn't command the international stature of recent Pritzker winners like Jean Nouvel and Thom Mayne.

Especially because he was not an obvious frontrunner, the decision to award this prestigious international honor to Wang, who humbly describes himself "just a local architect" (indeed, he has trained and worked wholly in China) must be understood as a major statement on the part of the Pritzker jury. But a statement about what?

The prize citation actually tells us quite a lot -- and combining text and subtext, it's a very interesting statement indeed. Most obviously, the jury sees its decision as "acknowledging the role that China will play in the development of architectural ideals." What's emphasized is that the measure of China's building boom should not be the number of new buildings that are erected in the country, but rather the architectural "ideals" they express. And the "ideals" mentioned by the Pritzker jury are both aesthetic and social: the jury emphasized architecture's potential to make China's ongoing urbanization something "in harmony" with local people and culture and a process of "sustainable development." (Until now, China's urbanization has been anything but sustainable: according to the World Bank, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China.)

But there's more at work here. A reader knowledgeable about China will see that the Pritzker award and its jury statement is not only about architecture and Wang's work, but also about the broader implications of China's rise. "Wang Shu's architecture is exemplary in its strong sense of cultural continuity and re-invigorated tradition," the jury statement reads. The citation continues:

The question of the proper relation of present to past is particularly timely, for the recent process of urbanization in China invites debate as to whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should look only toward the future... [Wang] is able to send several messages on the careful use of resources and respect for tradition and context...

These words address one of the most important and sensitive issues that pervades all aspects of China's social, economic and political development, and China's reemergence as a great world power: how China's future relates to China's tradition and past. Wang's work stands for, and the Pritzker jury statement sides with, one set of possibilities for China's future -- bold, forward-thinking development that is tempered by awareness of China's remarkable and distinctive past.

History is a powerful weapon in China, one that the ruling Communist Party has wielded with a lack of certainty and resolve. Indeed, the Party can tell its own history, marred as it is by the great excesses of the Mao era, only in part. In a recent speech on "culture," Hu Jintao invoked a broad range of historical traditions. But his vague and cautious references to "China's exalted cultural traditions" and "revolutionary traditions" acknowledge the values and generative power of China's pre-Communist past, but also show how uneasy talking about history and culture the Party still is.

Wang's work, by contrast, shows a self-confident ability to translate the past for present audiences: He uses traditional Chinese structures and materials as starting points for radically updated designs. In interviews, he has described his buildings as "modern interpretations of the pagoda, the temple and the courtyard." His much-lauded design for the Ningbo History Museum recreates traditional Chinese fortress structures in sweeping modern forms. And his engagement with history extends to his materials: the Ningbo museum, for instance, is composed of more than one million recycled bricks and salvaged tiles.

Listening to Wang discuss his materials, the political implications of his work become even clearer. In an interview, Wang said, "The material is not just about materials. Inside it has the people's experience, memory -- many things inside. So I think it's for an architect to do something about it." He has also said that his buildings aim to show that "the common people, they understand something about art and culture." To use salvaged tiles, then, means three things: engaging with "the people's experience"; emphasizing the centrality of what "the common people... understand"; and applying their "memory," their history, to "do something."

It is noteworthy that, in these statements, Wang implies that "the common people" are distinct from the state, even within an ostensibly socialist system. This critique is widespread in China today. But many ordinary Chinese people feel they are losing out in their country's "socialist market economy" -- leading China's President Hu Jintao to put forth a "scientific development concept," which he describes as a "people-centered" approach to social and economic growth.

Wang Shu's approach is exceptional in today's China in part because it takes this abstract "concept" seriously and applies it practically. Chinese developers today typically want quite the opposite: Everything must look as new as possible, and development projects that involve world class architecture are usually not "people-centered." Architecture in China often begins with acts of demolition, the destruction of old structures, even whole neighborhoods. Many writers in China have written movingly about the single character chai (拆), meaning "demolish," which marked urban buildings that were to be knocked down throughout past several decades.

Although he recovers materials from these sites, Wang does not necessarily side with the anti-chai protestors. He certainly evades simple nostalgia for the old buildings. He recently said to a Los Angeles audience: "I don't do fake old things. Copies. No way. Never." Instead, he provides physically constructed arguments about the implications that China's past has for China today. In simplest terms, Wang seems to say: don't be afraid to embrace and use the past, and don't let modernization make everything old seem off-limits.

What would a Chinese society constructed like one of Wang's buildings look like? It would be a sweeping, contemporary structure that saw itself as held accountable -- and held together -- by carefully arranged pieces of its past. Its development would be cautious, detail-oriented, and focused on quality over quantity. Its concerns would be domestic authenticity and legitimacy as much as international stature. And it would have "the very rare attribute" that the Prizker jury citation picked out: "A commanding and even, at times, monumental presence, while functioning superbly and creating a calm environment for life and daily activities."