Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Amateur Pursuit of Wang Shu

“Built spontaneously, illegally and temporarily, amateur architecture challenges professional architecture but is generally considered to be insignificant.  Professional architects think of buildings too much as physical objects, in my opinion.  They can learn from amateurs in that respect.”

Wang Shu explicates on the name behind Amateur 
Architecture Studio – the office in which he and 
his architect wife Lu Wenyu are principal partners.

West Lake – a major source of references in classical literature, still exerting influences to hearts and minds of today.  It is in this context that Wang chairs the dean of the architectural school in the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou.

Shot to fame after the Pritzker Prize in 2012, Wang Shu (1963-  ) has only realized a handful of projects so far.  There is practically little trace of his works carried out in the formative years, yet his consistency in design and philosophy are astonishing.  In plain language, it is as if a chef who was little-known previously suddenly acquired Michelin stars with his first restaurant in a culinary outback.  This is by no means a simple praise of achievement.  When most architects are preoccupied with style-chasing and fame, Wang manages to avoid these pitfalls and pursues on small practice, seeking alternative paths of commissioning.

Wang’s commendation cannot be more difficult in the case of China where quality projects are dominated by expedient architects, and clients invariably patronize established tastes.  Over time, what is bequeathed is a hotchpotch of banal, grotesque or at best corporate architecture.  To be regretted by all, they help erase an identity proper and little by little, destroy the sediments of a civilization with irreversible consequence.

Historical manor house Tianyi in Ningbo with 
high-rise developments knocking at the door.

Concocted ‘old street’, Ningbo as showcase of 
preserved heritage.  This is a trade-in that 
legitimizes wholesale eradication of existing urban fabric.

It is with great hope on architects like Wang, who has demonstrated through a language that derives its inspirations from the local history and culture yet at the same time be compatible with contemporary needs.  Befitting a few precedents that follow their lone paths, Wang and his approach are also hard to be categorized.  He may be a Imre Makovecz (1935-2011) of ethnic reinterpretation, a Glenn Murcutt (1936-  ) of adaptation on neglected heritage and an early Charles Correa (1930-  ), who advocated the urgency against social ills as much as architectural advancement in his native country.

Imre Makovecz, Hagymaház Cultural Centre (Onion House)
(1995-98), Makó, Hungary.  
(imageAndrea Schmidt for www.delmagyar.hu)

Glenn Murcutt, Mangey House (1982-84), Moruya, 
NSW, Australia. (imagewww.domtak.ru)

Charles Correa, Artist Village, Mumbai, India.  (imagewww.thedesignstreet.blogspot.com)

Wang Shu’s dynamism crosses boundaries.  With a few completed works so far, he has demonstrated convincingly to the world audience a unique expression of contemporary modernism at a regional level.  On a different score and in particular to Ningbo Museum where homage to classical scenic painting is registered, he has managed to refresh the local perception on the traditional Chinese art through the vehicle of architecture.  Iconic to view, his deployment of discarded materials on the walls of the same museum immortalizes the remnants of reckless demolitions.  To the thinking eye, this may be as subversive as what contemporary Chinese satirical art can pull off.  For those sentimental folks including me, this is a new building already imbued with generations of memories.

Local visitors in gaze of the reused materials on 
the wall of Ningbo Museum.  (imagewww.visitgd.com)

Below is a visual account of three works by Amateur Architecture Studio, followed by an interview on Wang Shu. 

Ningbo Museum of Art (2001-2005), Ningbo

Parallel to the harbour, the modern art museum was designed as a cargo warehouse, or officially a ‘container of art’.  Entrance to the building via ramp is reminiscent of a service gangway rather than a passenger boarding bridge.

Colonnaded deck surrounds the building at harbour side
 leading to observation jetties.

Walls, finished with recycled planks, can be opened up as 
required.  Existing observation tower from the 
demolished building was retained within the new structure.  It 
is off-limits to visitors and quite obscured from view.

From the open deck comes the view across the harbour of 
River Yao.  Traces of a once busy port can 
still be found on the existing buildings.

Site plan 

First floor plan

Section through exhibition halls (above) and 
open courtyard (below)

Huge entrance foyer bisecting exhibition halls 
on left and right.

Photographic show at exhibition hall and 
dramatic gallery above.

The other exhibition hall with group calligraphy works on display. The cement rendered wall of the walk-up gallery, apparently metallic, is finished with gloss paint.

The exhibition entitled ‘The Tree of Moving Words’ by the Sarajevo born painter Aleksandra Lopatić on shown at the lower ground gallery.  Lopatić uses acrylic, felt pens, pencils, Indian ink, Letraset etc to mix with photographic reproductions and scraps of letters on canvas.  The paintings, impregnated with vivid colours from her spell in southern France, contrast sharply with themes of dreaded souls in war-torn Yugoslavia.

Mère, mixed media with acrylic, 2012, 80x85cm.


Parenthèse, mixed media with acrylic, 2012, 80x80cm.


Lettre à L’impossible, mixed media with acrylic, 2012, 130x200cm.


Door, ironmongery and fair-face cement dressed
 for the warehouse theme.

Reconstruction of Zhongshan Lu (2007-09) - Thoroughfare from the Song Dynasty, Hangzhou

Pedestrian street lined with mixed frontages most 
noted for the pre-war republic-styled mansions.  
The water feature is a popular motif for 
canals of the imperial times.

Pavilions and other interventions along the street.

Visitor’s centre of the historical street showcasing 
re-development masterplan and models. 

Glass-covered pavement revealing original
 boulder slabs below.

Timber rafter ceiling – a feature in many of 
Wang Shu’s buildings.

Ningbo Museum (2003-08)

Defiant looking building in a melancholic mood - 
Ningbo could be as misty as London in 
a Sherlock Holmes film set.

Entrance is located within the hole on the wall via 
a ramp.  The Ronchamp-like windows, much anticipated but 
failed to be seen from within, are where offices and
 private facilities are located.

Imposing building mass, as Wang refers to as 
‘mountain’, looks like one of those cloud-gathering 
peaks in traditional ink paintings. 

Museum located at the centre of a civic park.

Ground Floor Plan - the irregular building form is 
a deception to the highly integrated 
rectangular floor plan. 

First Floor Plan – a multitude of voids and 
courtyards are hollowed out from the slab.

Second Floor Plan – the terrace level with 
‘split rocks’.

East and south elevations.

Section through entrance foyer (above) and 
open-air void space(below).

Minor defect: Uncontrolled rainwater at 
covered entrance.

Entrance hall hovered with stylized rafter ceiling – 
imagine the shadow lines on a bright sunny day.

At roof level, an assemblage of building blocks 
rises from below like rock formations.  The retrieved 
brickworks, roof tiles and rough concrete castings 
make up the rustic building envelope. 

Interesting open-air courtyard for functions and 
special gathering.  The other courtyards were 
inaccessible to the public.

There are permanent exhibits of artefacts and foregone 
city heritage lest you are an ardent fan of the local history.  
One point to note: Time your visit, the museum staff would 
signal for your departure by 4:30pm, a good half hour 
before the official closing time of 5:00pm.

The cold and rainy day prohibited detailed 
exploration of both the roof terrace and 
the ground floor surrounding.

The lavatory design is 
something of an experiment for the architect.

Extract of “Local Hero – An Interview with Wang Shu” published in Mark Magazine #19 April-May, 2009

Mark Magazine(MM): The Ningbo Historic Museum [sic] is the result of an international competition held in 2004.  What is the main concept underlying the design?

Wang Shu (WS): I combined two ways of thinking: I envisioned it as both a small city and a small mountain.  Ningbo is a new Chinese city with standard urban planning, featuring wide roads, big squares and low building density.  This is a bad planning model, it doesn’t take into account China’s vast population.  I work in the city because I want to improve its structure.  But here I can’t do anything; the place is so empty.  So I designed the building as a small city in its own right.  On a different note, I want to tell people what live in this city used to look like.  Ten years ago this was a very beautiful harbour city.  Now everything is demolished.  So I collected and recycled building materials from the area.  For this reason, even though I won this competition, local government officials didn’t like my design.

MM: Why not?

WS: They think theirs is a modern city that needs a modern building.  But when the building was finished and the people saw the real thing, they loved it.  I think it’s a very interesting process.  You look at some architecture on paper and like it immediately, but people seeing something like this have a hard time imaging how it will be built and what it will look like.  It’s beyond their thinking and experience.

Mm: An important aspect of your approach is the relationship between architecture and landscape design.  In today’s China’s cities, that relationship seems to be lost.  How come?

WS:  In china we have lost the tradition of building cities and of creating architecture that is part of the landscape.  In my design for the Hangzhou campus, for instance, I positioned the buildings at the foot of the Xiangshan (Elephant) Mountain in such a way that each building enters a different dialogue with the mountain, offering different views of it.  To me, a building as an object isn’t important.  It’s the building’s relation with nature that most interests me.  I have tried to develop some new building types on the campus.  In China we have a limited amount of building types we can put together to make a city.  We’re in need of some alternatives, so we developed new prototypes – like the courtyard building and water building.  They are templates for modern interpretations of the pagoda, the temple and the courtyard.  Many of my buildings are similar to the Chinese garden: they have many entrances, and it’s not clear where the main entrance is.

MM: The facades of your buildings are often composed of recycled bricks and tiles. Are the resulting patterns designed or accidental?  How much control do you have over all the bricklaying involved?

WS: In the eastern part of this province, near the sea, people suffer from typhoons, which cause many houses to collapse.  They don’t have a lot of time to rebuild them, so they put the bricks back together randomly.  I find the resulting architecture very beautiful.  I did design the pattern on the walls of this museum.  When the construction process started, people worked behind a scaffold.  It was very secretive.  Nobody saw what was happening, including me.  Obviously, the craftsmen change my design, but when they took the scaffold down I loved it, precisely it was beyond my control.

MM: In your design process, you combine writing, painting, calligraphy and sketching.  Can you explain how this works?

WS: I design very similarly to the traditional Chinese painter.  I don’t sketch very much, but I do study cities, valleys and mountains.  Then I stop.  I think for about a week and don’t draw.  In the case of this museum, one night I couldn’t sleep and it immediately emerged.  To me, every design is about both poetic thinking and mathematics.  I sat on the bed, drew it in my mind and calculated the size of the building.  When that was done, I took a small piece of paper and a pencil.  I drew everything directly: numbers, structure, size, space, stairs, where to locate the entrance, functions and so on.  Then I drank tea.  During the second stage of a project, I use a pencil and a ruler for very accurate plans and sections, showing the positions of windows and doors.  I give my work to the assistants.  They draw it again, using the computer.  When that is finished, we discuss the materials and the details.  This month I have to design three museums, so my studio stops working for one month.  Everyone goes home, so I can work on my own.  I send them to the countryside for research or give somebody a list of books about Chinese paintings, French philosophers, movies or any subject that might be helpful.  This is their homework.  When they come back, we have a discussion, and then we work again.

MM: You seldom work with commercial developers, choosing instead to work in most cases with local governments.  Do you find the process of creating while negotiating with commercial developers too difficult?

WS: There are three very difficult stages during the building process.  The first is how to convince the government.  The second deals with designing working details and with other construction issues.  Many architects fail in this stage.  They may have a good idea, but more often than not it’s poorly executed.  The third stage is the hardest of all.  When a building is finished, the Chinese rarely think of it as a work of art.  They treat it as a container with many functions that they can change randomly and at will.  This is very difficult for me.  I can control the first and second stages, but I have no influence on the third.  In the Contemporary Art Museum in Ningbo, for example, we designed two large floors.  When we presented our plans, local authorities told me they had the money to build the museum, but no money to operate it.  They need a space they could let out in order to generate money.  I told them that, apart from selling fish, they could do whatever they wanted on the ground floor to make money.  But art should b o the first floor.  When I said this to the mayor I used Marxist theory, explaining that a basement is about economy and an upper floor about art.  I hope he got the joke.

MM: Does this unthoughtful attitude reflect a lack of respect for the architect?

WS: The architect is in a higher esteem than ten years ago.  But people do not consider architecture to be art.  They might think a building is more or less beautiful, but that’s not enough.  I do not think people really understand my ideas and what I try to achieve, but maybe in ten years they will.

MM: Do you see yourself an international architect, like Ma Qingyung or Ma Yangsong?

WS: They are really international.  I am just a local architect.  I’m not smart enough to be as fashionable as they are.

MM: But would you like to be?  To me, it seems as though your architecture explains more about the reality of China than some of your colleague’s buildings.

WS: A good architect should have a thorough experience of the society he comes from.  Between 1990 to 2000 I had no commissions, and I did not want a government or academic position.  I just wanted to work with craftsmen, gain experience on the ground and take no responsibility for the design – only for the construction.  So I worked on the lowest levels of the society.  Every day I worked at building sites from eight in the morning until midnight.  While working and eating with the craftsmen, I started to wonder what had happened to our experience of tradition.  Gradually, I gained confidence while learning everything about construction methods.  Continuity is very important in my opinion.  Tradition is continuity.  During those years I began studying the history of art in Europe, India, Africa and America; as well as philosophy, cinema and contemporary art - a practice I continue today.  I believe in starting with a broad vision and condensing it the fit the local situation.

(Quotation and interview extract courtesy of “Local Hero – An Interview with Wang Shu” published in Mark Magazine #19 April-May, 2009)

(All drawings from Amateur Architecture Studio)

The following is an eloquent article on Wang and the status of professional architect worldwide.  This partly explains the reason I left this profession.  Be patient with the slow connection.  http://www.domusweb.it/en/op-ed/2012/03/02/why-wang-shu.html

嚴肅的業餘追求  〈中文摘要〉

王澍(1963-  )的現象有點傳奇。這說法並非源於他在二○一二年,只憑數個建築設計竟獲「普立兹」奬。他的不同不單只在理念上與中國國內的主流大相逕庭,而是引伸出的作品在國際領域上亦俱相當感染力。簡單說,王的突圍有如一默默工作的厨師在飲食文化匱乏的國度裡脱穎而出,繼而獲得米芝蓮星奬。從這角度再說,當今建築師,因種切考量,大多志於追遂名利與潮流;然而王澍這土炮以清晰智慧拒絕利誘,花上十年時間經營細規模事務所,尋找小眾項目,實屬罕有。





1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for share........