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Chinese architect's win builds national pride


Chinese architect Wang Shu, poses in front of a building he designed at the Xiangshan campus of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, in a file photo from March 2009.

BEIJING – Every year, thousands of Beijing’s century-old alleyways and historical courtyard residences are demolished to make way for high-rising blocks of concrete and glass.

But now one Chinese architect, who has it made his life work to honor China’s rich history and culture by using salvaged materials in modern forms, has been given architecture’s highest honor for his efforts.

Wang Shu, a 48-year-old Hangzhou-based architect, is the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. 

With much of China’s rapid development being fueled by Western architects, China is pleased to see one of their own honored.

‘Appreciation for traditional Chinese architecture’
Wang was born in Urumqi, in the western Chinese province Xinjiang.  He and his wife, Lu Wenyu, founded their Hangzhou-based architecture firm, called Amateur Architecture Studio, in 1997. Wang has said he is highly passionate about the “handicraft aspect” of his trade, and shows an equally passionate disdain for the “the professionalized, soulless architecture that is practiced today.”





Professor Lu Jiwei, Wang’s PhD supervisor when he was at Tongji University, spoke to NBC about his impressions of Wang as a student. He said Wang was “a highly focused and grounded student who showed a deep sense of appreciation for traditional Chinese architecture and innovatively incorporated elements of it into his own designs.”

Indeed, many of Wang’s notable works, which include the Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum and the China Academy of Art’s Xiangshan Campus, display a distinct Chinese flavor that tends to be absent from many contemporary structures seen in China today.

For instance, with the China Academy of Art building, Wang covered the campus buildings with more than 2 million reused tiles from demolished traditional homes.

“Everywhere you can see, they don’t care about the materials,” Mr. Wang was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “They just want new buildings, they just want new things. I think 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.” 

However, as eco-friendly buildings with modern interior spaces, Wang’s work also simultaneously takes into consideration China’s present and future needs.   

Luo believes that Wang was awarded the highest accolade in the architectural world because “he is able to successfully bring China’s architectural heritage to the present.” He added, “Wang’s win is a wonderful thing because a majority of buildings in China have become too generic and lack cultural characteristics; Wang’s designs try to bring back these characteristics.”

Proud nation
Wang’s achievement has been well received by the media and the general public in China. On Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, more than 90,000 postings about Wang have appeared so far.

The postings range from a simple “Congratulations, Wang Shu!” to excerpts from Wang’s biography and albums of Wang’s notable works.  Many Weibo users have expressed pride about the fact that Wang is the first Chinese national to win what many are dubbing as the “Nobel Prize for Architecture.”

Indeed, the prize, founded in Chicago in 1979 by the Pritzker family, has been likened to the Nobel Prize: winners receive a $100,000 reward.

State-run media organizations, such as China Daily and China Central Television (CCTV), have also run stories about Wang’s win. The China Daily proudly announced “Pritzker Prize goes to Chinese for the first time” on its web site. (I.M. Pei, was the first Chinese-born architect to win the prize in 1983, but he was an American citizen).

China Central Television also mentioned that many celebrities across China, including Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, co-founders of the Chinese construction giant, SOHO, have posted on Weibo to express their delight about Wang’s win.

The outspoken, world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei told NBC News: “I’m happy for him. He is a good choice. He has his own way and he has his own style that is different from others. It’s the first time that the Western world has given recognition to a Chinese architect.”

Given the backdrop of the massive socio-economic changes that are currently happening in China, Wang’s win certainly comes at a very interesting time.  As urbanization sees the mass demolition of historical villages for so-called “Lego-set” apartment blocks, and as globalization sees China’s younger generations increasing abandon traditional Chinese customs, Wang’s designs might well serve as a symbol of hope that China’s cultural traditions and its economic growth can go hand-in-hand.

This sentiment was well articulated by Weibo user, Yu Jing Ming, who said “He’s the pride of the Chinese people and the world. Wang Shu is like timely rainfall … it is him staying true to his cultural heritage that has allowed him to win this prize.”