By IAN VOLNER
WANG SHU HAS ACQUIRED A SHADOW. Walking through the construction work-shop at the Xiangshan campus of the China Academy of Art, the 49-year-old Chinese architect is being trailed at a distance of 30 yards by a young man with a meager profile and a stunned expression. Wang teaches in this building; he also designed it, as he did all of the buildings at Xiangshan. He knows his way around and moves quickly. The young man is in no way deterred by this.
Past studios and offices, architect and pursuer wend their way down hallways that turn sharply or end abruptly in stairwells. The plan of the building is complex, irregular, so it's easy to get lost—"an important part of education," jokes Wang. Corridors narrow then widen, opening onto atria with brick floors and creeping vegetation that make them look like the exercise yards of an extremely old and prestigious prison. Metal catwalks connect this structure to neighboring ones huddled close around it. "Like a village," Wang says.
The Innovator of the Year Awards 2012
Coming down a ramp from one building to the next, at last the young man catches up. He introduces himself—a visitor on tour. He comes from a small and rather poor prefecture far away. He wants a picture with the professor. Wang obliges.
Later, a colleague of Wang's will remark, "He was not famous in China before the prize." The shutter snaps, the young man shakes his hand, and as he walks away, Wang produces a cigarette from a red packet of Chunghwa's—"Mao's cigarette," he notes. He smiles indulgently: These encounters happen more and more frequently, but it is clear that the designer does not exactly find them diverting.
They're just a consequence of being the most important architect in what is fast becoming the most important country in the world.
The Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of the design profession, comes with a $100,000 honorarium and a cloudburst of media attention. If an architect is lucky, most of the coverage will not be about how somebody else deserved it more.
When Wang Shu won the prize this past February, he was in Los Angeles, about to give a lecture at UCLA. Architect Neil Denari, a professor at the school and Wang's host, was with him that afternoon. "His cell phone was just buzzing," Denari says. "Chinese journalists at three in the morning calling him and calling him." The news was leaked to the Internet a day before the official announcement was made. "He didn't look like a guy who was thinking, This is what I've been waiting for, to be world famous!" adds Denari. "He looked a little bemused."
He does that. Wang comes from a background unusual among architects of his stature, having served a nearly decade-long hitch working with traditional craftsmen in the construction industry. This self-imposed apprenticeship between architecture school and professional life has left a lasting impression, and the mentality of the work site—of making payroll and meeting delivery schedules—has bred in him an allergy to design-biz backslapping.
The honoree's seeming indifference shouldn't be taken to mean he thinks the prize jury was wrong. "He isn't so falsely humble as to think he's done nothing," says Denari. "He has confidence in his work." With a scant team of seven associates, Amateur Architecture Studio—the practice Wang founded with wife, Lu Wenyu, in 1997—has turned out a succession of acclaimed projects, from civic buildings to private homes to exhibition pavilions, all of them in China. He can be diffident, but he knows he's on to something. "My way is new," Wang says, with the gruff candor of the building foreman.
That attitude, and that experience, are at the very heart of what's new about Amateur Architecture. The culture of building in China is radically different from that of the United States, and Wang is steeped in it. His work has been described as China's "new regional style." That could be one name for what Wang Shu is doing. More broadly, Amateur's catalog of projects may be nothing less than a prospectus for a new national architecture for China.
"It's about craftsmanship," Wang says. Knowing what Chinese builders can do, he is able to produce buildings that can only be built in China, and he makes his workers an integral part of the process. Just a short walk from the studios of the China Academy of Art, crews are at work on a new Amateur-designed hotel for campus visitors. Clambering from floor to floor on slender bridges of bamboo, shirtless workers set wooden roof joints by hand. These are skilled laborers, and they are Wang Shu's people. At Xiangshan, an exterior passage is bordered by a perforated wall in dappled bricks. Most of it was devised by the men who put it there— Amateur architects put up a sample section and then stepped back, leaving the builders to do the rest.
The most startling demonstration to date of this communal craft-based approach is the Ningbo Museum of Art. Located in the eponymous seaside town in Zhejiang Province, the building, completed in 2008, houses 330,000 square feet of exhibition space given over to local history and culture: regional woodworking, wax figures in life-size dioramas. Up close, the structure's exterior seems a vast pile of mottled slate, tile and brick, which is not far from what it is; the architects and their construction team salvaged most of the materials from demolition sites in and around Ningbo.
Appearing from some angles like a blocky citadel, from others like a strange gray galleon, the museum has an air of the uncanny, as do many of Amateur's projects. Wang practices Chinese calligraphy every morning, and he explains that there is no single ideogram in the language for the word "architect." "In traditional Chinese architecture, there was no architect," he says. "Only the scholar talking to the craftsman." If his creations look somehow anonymous or organic—as though they were the work not of a single designer but of a whole culture—that would be very much in keeping with the history of building in China.
History is very much on Wang's mind. He doesn't use e-mail. He doesn't drive. He and Lu, both from the remote northwestern province of Xinjiang, chose to live and base their office in the city of Hangzhou, rather than cosmopolitan Shanghai two hours away, because of the lakeside city's age-old connection to Chinese literature and art. At night, they go out to a teahouse in the hills above the town; their friends are poets, musicians, and all together they argue about ancient Chinese landscape painting. During a lull in the conversation, Wang points to an antique earthenware pot sitting on a lacquered stand. He likes the soft glow reflected in the glazing. "I don't like the light that's just on the surface," he opines. "I like the light that comes from within."
Wang's whole mode of living seems to bear out the feeling behind projects like Ningbo—that these buildings are somehow part of a mind-set indelibly, authentically Chinese. Danish architect Bjarke Ingels (winner of WSJ. Magazine's 2011 Innovator Award in architecture) is an admirer, and he sees Wang as acting on a key architectural imperative: that buildings should engage with climate and history. "Architecture should look different in different cultures," he says. "Local vernacular styles have to respond to a given set of conditions and available materials." Taking its cues from the walls, streets and alleys of the historical city, Wang's work belongs to its element in a way buildings seldom do, especially in China. Surely no nation needs it more.
TO VENTURE A SWEEPING GENERALIZATION, all serious architecture built in China in the 21st century can be classed into one of two categories. The first is typified by a trend everywhere in evidence: Glassy residential towers imported fresh from Miami and New York, alongside iconic opera houses and museums by international starchitects, are becoming more and more common in larger cities. The buildings that have emerged from this Westernizing tendency aren't necessarily awful—they're merely unconvincing. Against the unconvincing, there is only the second category of architecture: Wang Shu's. "People say they want China to be strong," says the architect. "And who is strong, they think? America!" Recoiling at the urge to imitate, Wang's work is a declaration of China's architectural independence.
But the same quality that makes Amateur's buildings so fiercely original can also make them oddly forbidding. Confronted with a project like one of the firm's teahouses on Zhongshan Road in Hangzhou—a jagged, oblong loop of concrete and stone—the Western visitor can balk at its unalloyed Chinese-ness. Perhaps one has to be steeped in Chinese history to fully understand this architecture: to feel, as its creator does, "the relation between tradition and contemporary time."
Then, again, perhaps not. The Pritzker jury seems to have understood, and for once the rest of the design world agrees. The only carping that's accompanied the announcement has been the charge in some quarters that Lu should have been named a corecipient. (On-site at the new hotel near Xiangshan, it's an easy case to make: Lu is the one who wrangles with the workmen, mollifies the client and rustles up the associates.)
Wang himself, immersed as he is in Chinese tradition, has also sought out the work of American and European modernists. Amateur registers that influence strongly, as in their 2006 Ceramic House in Jinhua, whose coarse textures and blocky massing recalls the work of Louis Kahn. The firm is even beginning to con- template their first project outside China.
Most significantly, the audience that struggles the hardest with Amateur's buildings isn't Western—it's the Chinese. "They've never seen anything like this," says Wang. Locals weaned on a steady diet of middling modernism scarcely know what to make of these projects, and many fail to recognize the correlation between the stones of Ningbo and the traditionally built environment of their own country. Amateur's real mission is less nationalistic than pedagogical, teaching the Chinese people about themselves.
In China today, that project carries with it a potent critique. The car ride between Hangzhou and Ningbo shows how much the country is being trans- formed by the government's headlong embrace of hyperdevelopment. Outside the window, a Buddhist monastery clings to an artificial cliff, the hillside shorn away by mining and quarrying. "Chinese people are like trees without roots," says Wang. "They're floating." Amateur's work is an ongoing attempt to shore up the collective foundation.
It is hardly a job for amateurs (which only goes to show how canny Wang and company really are). In a nation where an artist like Ai Weiwei can be imprisoned as a political dissident, and where Western architects reckon with the moral implications of taking commissions from a nondemocratic regime, the camera-shy professor is now in the spotlight, trying to reconnect people with their shared humanity. He is hopeful. "When the people really touch the material and feel the real atmosphere, they get awakened," says Wang. "They get a memory about some place; they think, I know it, deep in my heart, my memory. The people, they know this. And they love it."