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The Power of Ideas

Wang Shu

In 2012 I was awarded the Pritzker Prize, often called the “Nobel of architecture”. I always knew I would win it one day, that it was just a matter of time. Yet the news took the world of architecture and China by surprise. I and a small group of Chinese architects had been banished from the inner circle of architects from 2002 to 2012, a period when most of China’s famous professionals had given themselves over to designing projects for foreign architecture practices. No one dreamed that the Pritzker Prize would ever go to a Chinese fellow. Indeed, few had ever heard of the Pritzker.
Architecture’s cultural background and social status differ in the various parts of the world. By the same token, the role of the architect and his social responsibilities change from country to country. Until the third millenium Chinese society did not pose the problem of what role architecture and the architect should have. What are the main characteristics attributed to the architect in China? Let me answer by giving a series of background facts:
- in the last twenty years about half of all new architectures in the world have been built in China, at an extraordinary speed. This is practically unique in the whole history of architecture;
- traditional Chinese architecture and cities remained intact for almost 2000 years, until the 1990s when massive large-scale developments led to the almost total dismantling of classical Chinese culture in the space of just twenty years;
- previous generations of architects in China followed the laws of nature in contrast to today’s heavy-handed construction practices that lay waste the environment. In addition, traditional design and building was bottom-up, with strong emphasis on craft skills. Current building practices have overturned this practice and are top-down, putting the emphasis exclusively on specialist professionals;
- today the inhabitants of urban conglomerations move in droves from one part of the city to another, becoming like daily swarms of internal migrants. In addition there has been a loss of awareness of Chinese culture and lifestyles, with the result that people have been turned into consumer machines to feed financial globalisation;
- in their attempt to reflect some sort of cultural identity, new Chinese architecture practices working to Western models are only capable of producing a simplistic, almost brutal travesty of their cultural identity, with no hint of any local nuances;
- the approximately 120 medium-to-large cities in China are for the most part overbuilt. The latest Chinese government reports talk of providing accommodation for some 3.4 billion people, even if China’s total population is today 1.4 billion. It follows that we will witness the highly unusual phenomenon of new cities remaining practically uninhabited, similar to what we are seeing in so many rural areas, now populated only by the elderly, women and children. In both cases, urgent repopulation is necessary. Yet paradoxically, strict birth control policies ran counter to a demographic boom.

Against this backdrop, the role of the architect in China is not just to design buildings. My acceptance speech at the Pritzker award ceremony in 2012 in the People’s Hall asked the following questions: how can we maintain a vibrant craft skill base in today’s world of architecture? What role does the traditional Chinese landscape have before the gigantic artificial structures now being built? How can urban architecture progress without destroying the historic fabric of our cities? If what was there before has been razed to the ground, how can we develop a new architecture from these ruins that will reflect traditional urban life? How can we re-establish our cultural identity? Given the deep divide between rural and urbanised areas in China, what kind of architecture can bridge this gap? In today’s system based on professional top-down building, how can ordinary people defend their rights and preserve the achievements of a society whose roots lie in a bottom-up approach? Isn’t past practice a more suitable way of tackling environmental crises? Is it possible to build a normal-scale architectural product - neither symbol nor icon - but in tune with every day life and experience? As architects, how can we preserve our professional independence while working within such a pressurised, powerful production system?
No Chinese architect can sidestep these issues.
Unfortunately, most architects are too susceptible to vested economic interests. China’s building industry suffers from a serious dearth of professionals who take the human dimension into account and give real thought to the lifestyles they are imposing with their buildings. There is a crying need for unconditional honesty on the part of architects to admit the need for people to experience the power of ideas, which if put into practice, are much more eloquent than any theoretical plan.
Some Chinese architects love to say they work to serve people. In my view though, the architect’s role is not simply to serve others. The world’s most recalcitrant problem is the conflict between the natural environment and man’s large-scale built programmes. If architects really want to contribute to society, they must become the defenders of their culture and fight against those who have lost their sense of reason.
I find it very difficult to be optimistic about the future before the current social and environmental situation, where the drive for growth combines with a total disinterest in the destruction of our cultural heritage. I am saddened by the weakness of the individual before the overweening power of consumerism. In 2010 my wife and I decided to take time out from work. It’s not easy for an architect to suddenly close up shop but we refused many assignments that continued to come in, and concentrated on finishing the projects we had underway. Our original plan was to close our practice by the end of 2012 in order to take a break of a couple of years and then resume our business, or abandon the profession for good, retiring to the countryside to enjoy a life farming the land.

One of the most frequent questions I was asked after receiving the Pritzker was if it had substantially changed my life. By and large not much changed for me. I do not like change; in fact I think that life only changes if you want it to. Yet, the quiet “almost reclusive” lifestyle I had enjoyed for many years did suddenly come to an end. People’s expectations increased, as did the social responsibilities we took on. It was the end of our dream.
So we decided to accept a few briefs we both found particularly attractive. For when we design a project, we give it our all. Our practice, Amateur Architecture Studio, stands out from the mainstream. We carry out research and experimentation on architecture as a standard practice; we are often on-site; we seek to apply the bottom-up craft-based method and choose construction techniques that allow us full control of the building procedure, in terms both of quantity and quality. Receiving the Pritzker Prize was a confirmation of the way we do things, which we intend to continue, working slowly and with an open mind. But to do this, you have to get used to solitude. There are many positive aspects to our times, although I have distanced myself from them, not out of any vocation to lead a radical life of abstinence, rather as a way of being consistent with my principles. Mine is a peaceful rather than a passive attitude. When faced with a problem, I proceed with firmness and without hesitation, always keeping a positive attitude that I will solve it.

I have been told that many Chinese architects are trying to understand whether my success can be replicated or not. In my view, the chaos and frenzy of Chinese architecture today demands that a standard level of excellence be set so as to show the public sphere and society in general what good architectural design really is. Architects who have received public recognition are put under the magnifying glass, their personal profile and assignments carefully scrutinised. All my work has been done in China and was completed before winning the Pritzker. Many young architects know me well and have a deep understanding of my work. Yet it is only by continuing to work ceaselessly that they will be able to follow in my footsteps. I also recognise that my Pritzker award has acted as a spur for those who adopt this rigorous, transparent and truthful attitude. These practitioners are - to say the least - rare in China. Most simply complain they are “hampered by the Client in their attempts to put their ideas into practice.”
I prefer dialogue. Talking to and asking questions of the client is key. The client must respect the project proposed and not demand to raze existing buildings to the ground. If this is not accepted, I do not accept the assignment. It is a principle I have always stuck to right from the outset, and winning the award has not changed this an iota. Many others have stooped to compromise, accepting to go against their ideals in order to make a living. But in doing so, they have produced architectures that have gradually lost all significance or value. Over the years, money (a great deal of it) has flowed in. Yet these architects have never ceased complaining. So it is not a question of survival, but rather of being willing or not to sacrifice something. It comes down to what I mentioned before: the only thing we can change in life is ourselves.

I believe in the power of ideas. Most of the questions of our times have arisen only recently and are underpinned by a fragility of resolve that leads to weak, compliant attitudes that are totally inadequate to face the challenges of today. My interests are often viewed by others as inappropriate. As a young man, for example, when the Cultural Revolution was about to break out over China and the universities, which had been closed for many years, began reopening, the thirst for knowledge was a rare thing among students. I, however, was one of the few avid readers, soaking up knowledge. Subsequently when everyone else started studying intensely, crowding into the libraries, I packed my bags and went out into the world, going from village to village from Hunan to Gulzhou, just as the novel Journey in Hunan by Shen Congwen (1902-1988).
Another example is my calligraphy book. I always prefer to use the same writing style in Chinese. Not everyone has my patience to painstakingly learn this art, preferring to experiment with a variety of styles to achieve their goal as quickly as possible. That is rarely my attitude. I admire the old way of writing enormously. For more than a decade I practised this calligraphy and only stopped once I had fully mastered the art of the original author. When I practice the writing style of the Tang Dynasty, the only way to achieve this is to immerse myself in the intellectual and spiritual mindset of the period.
To make things happen, you have to be consistent over time. Yet so many people, instead of keeping a clear vision of what they would like to achieve, allow themselves to be overcome by doubts about their talent. But it is only by preserving and moving steadily forward step-by-step that you will find satisfaction in your field of endeavour, mastering your topic and transforming your limitations into strengths.
I am much more interested in doing something rather than pondering its significance. I love reading; it helps me gain a clearer view of what I am - something very difficult today - and understand what really fires my interest. Most of the books I read have nothing to do with architecture, and yet they are of great value. For example, I am fascinated by the rural themes investigated by the anthropologist Fei Xiaotong in his Village Survey. My reading ranges widely. Philosophy is a favourite subject and I have read Western and Eastern literature, developing my own ideas on the history of this discipline. I am also fascinated by the ideological revolution in the field of mathematics, mutations in physics, anthropology and how sociology influences our thought patterns. I also love books on art, novels and miscellaneous subjects. I believe in the power of ideas and that reading is the best way to learn how to think.

Tradition has been reduced to a decorative symbol used to ornate the walls of contemporary architectures. The true significance of tradition has, alas, been reduced to this in China. In contrast, I have always respected it and shall always do so. Immediately after graduating I left architectural circles because I realised that books alone did not suffice and that I should adopt the lifestyle of my convictions. If everyday life ignored tradition, how could one ever understand what tradition really meant? It was only by choosing to live in a rural context that I would be able to fully appreciate the seasonal cycles. So I spent the 1990s working with craftsmen, learning every day and refining my understanding of what traditional culture means. The only way is to immerse oneself in the traditional way of life, taking time to observe and learn. Only after that should one open one’s mouth. Otherwise, words are hollow and what is produced risks being artificial and stilted, symbolic but without substance.
In terms of city management, Chinese policy is to promote intense urbanisation, a process that, however, requires a wider cultural vision. People talk of this process as the next important step for the country that will bring 300 million peasants into the cities in the next 5 to 10 years. This is of key importance for the future of our urban centres and requires an all-encompassing project starting from cultural aspects through to a vision for the country’s development. If China were to have 50% of its population living in urban areas, i.e. 700 million people living in cities, it would outstrip Europe and the United States (at 500 and 300 million), becoming the most urbanised country in the world.
And yet I see China’s most pressing problem as the countryside. In terms of environmental management, the rural areas have huge water resources necessary for urban systems to meet their requirements. Although sparsely cultivated and often in the hands of developers, our countryside has seen constant increases in agricultural productivity. I wonder therefore whether we are well advised to continue dependency on pesticides, fertilisers and GMOs to meet our goals, continuing to pursue a distorted concept of agriculture. I have travelled to Europe many times where farming methods have been modernised, without reducing yields, in fact producing magnificent, well-tended crops. When we achieve this in China it will be an extraordinary achievement. The topic would make a very significant architectural project.

Although working at a small scale, I always look at things from a wider perspective. After winning the Pritzker, everyone is interested in your subsequent work. Rural preservation has been a major interest for some time. It is an enormous challenge that cannot be won overnight. The culture of our countryside is disappearing apace, a fact that worries me enormously. Losing our past means not having a future. Since 2012 I have been carrying out in-depth research together with my students in 200 villages in the province of Zhejiang. The deeper we go, the greater my concern. Our conception of the world does not yet take rural areas into the equation. Although lip service is given to conservation, very little is done - at most, venues for urbanites like rural retreats and holiday farms are built. Safeguarding our rural culture is still not part of the common mindset. So the first thing to be done is to assess the state-of-the-art: how many rural villages have been abandoned up to now? How many buildings are still under construction, half finished and abandoned or just begun? Like a census, the study would provide detailed information on buildings, photographs, maps etc. The sociological standpoint should also be taken into account, looking at the demographics and economic model. Before taking action, we must know what we are facing. This, in my view, is the simplest approach.
Since I started as an architect I have always taken into consideration the balance between rural conservation and building. I am particularly interested in integrating traditional Chinese construction methods and materials into new buildings. It is something I have adopted in practically all my projects, sharing the results with my students in order to promote this modus operandi. Simply studying tradition doesn’t allow you to assimilate it. Only by living it and getting hands-on experience can you make it yours. Only once you have achieved this, you can start thinking about how to improve traditional techniques and adapt them to contemporary society. In the lab we are conducting scientific studies on different types of agricultural by-products so as to combine them with concrete and steel structures, and improve traditional building systems to comply with modern standards and regulations, etc. The romantic, poetic side of preserving our traditions must go hand-in-hand with extreme pragmatism.
Rural conservation is not just about saving buildings. Safeguarding the countryside means protecting the peaceful harmonious relationship developed between man and his environment. It is crucial to China’s future. How can we ensure 1.4 billion people enjoy certain standards of comfort without having recourse to conventional high-density residential models? This is where traditional culture takes on an important role. The Chinese tradition, for example, allows people to live together in harmony even in congested places. But it means going back to the philosophical teachings of the ancients that tell us we must keep kindness and humility in our hearts. Still today in the remotest villages - with all the disadvantages and poverty - you can still find people sitting outside their houses who greet you with a smile. Poverty has not made them outlaws. This is the power of culture.
Today, virtually without exception, all well educated people and training centres are moving to the city. In the past, once they had concluded their public office, Chinese ministers and governors withdrew to the countryside and dedicated themselves to teaching in the schools, which, unlike today, were held in much higher esteem than urban centres of learning. Today, however, this city is the temple of business, the place to obtain fame and wealth. It does not offer the ideal way of life though, which is to be found in the countryside. The model of traditional Chinese society is outstanding and could serve as an ideal in response to the eco-sustainable development of our planet. This is the main reason for continuing to explore our cultural heritage and ask ourselves how we can reintroduce it into our agricultural areas, improving the quality of education in the countryside. Urbanisation cannot confine itself to simply shifting peasants back to the rural areas. It presupposes a much vaster operation that also shifts centres of learning back to the countryside.

This does not mean that I neglect the question of our urban development. I continue to explore new possibilities. These include improving the reconstruction of an urban fabric that has lost any cultural connotation. I look especially to the contemporary city, putting aside subjective aesthetic and personal convictions to concentrate on a way traditional architecture and nature can coexist. London has its own special character, as does New York. What is the quintessence of a Chinese city? What is the significance of the local culture? The answer is Chinese urban culture, which must be the model for our new cities.
To those who ask my opinion about the speed of Chinese urban planning, I reply that buildings built for economic ends - euphemistically designated as “landmarks” - are nothing more than enormous billboards that have little to do with architecture. So what does building architecture mean? In my view it means protecting the land and our lives. Not chasing after ephemeral commercial trends, but rather following traditional design approaches whose ultimate aim and achievement is to safeguard our environment. Being an architect means creating; it means reasoning and acting within a system that eschews any form of abstract theorem or declaration. This is what traditional Chinese architecture means. It is a tradition mastered not only by the élite but also by unlearned craftsmen. Contemporary architectural training on the other hand, which should be of higher quality, simply “removes” students of architecture from the countryside and worksites and puts them to work in offices drawing plans. The stylish buildings that come off the drawing board are attempts by individuals to make their mark. They have little to do with making architecture. This for me is a sign of our world’s cultural decline.
Many residential buildings have been developed in the wake of developers’ dictates. In other words, driven by economic ends, ignoring local styles and colours. Gated communities protect their inhabitants with security systems but completely isolate them from the world. Like so many fiefdoms in the same city, they mark the disintegration of community life and harmonious coexistence. They are all the more worrying, the faster they spread across the country.
China must also be more open to what is going on outside its borders. What we have learned in recent years goes against our image of the contemporary world. We are exclusively concentrated on creating as rapidly as possible a strong country whose economic clout is clearly visible. Sound architectural planning is not just about providing housing for people. If a society is to remain vibrant, it also must reflect the ideals and values that are part of the local urban culture. We are surrounded by false cultures that spawn fallacious ideas when, instead, our very special culture reflects a complex philosophy, developed down the centuries, that allows us to live in harmony with nature. Although it is commonly accepted that traditional Chinese values are much more important compared to the rest, no one pays any attention to what that traditional culture actually entails. The ancient philosophies teach people how to observe and learn from nature - how human beings can grow as free as the flowers of the field and the trees of the forest. Likewise traditional architecture reveals its extraordinary beauty over time; it is the epitome of man’s closeness to the Earth, in stark contrast to the precarious nature of what is produced today.

Identifying with nature means grasping its real beauty. The peace and contentment of those who live in the mountains, depicted in traditional Chinese paintings, is symbolic of the perfect integration between culture and nature. It should be like that in cities. While Western models reflect a ramified cultural hierarchy, Chinese cities should focus more on horizontal relations, including dialogue between architecture and landscape. In Chinese landscape paintings, mountain chains and rivers dominate the scene while man-made buildings occupy only a tiny section. In this context, architecture is the space of human activity, a “natural sublevel” of no particular importance, just like the trees and rocks around. Usually called “the integration of man and nature”, this relationship has too often been violated today, leading to the need to preserve our habitat. For this reason it is fundamental that man learned to curb his ambitions.
Traditional Chinese construction techniques have always focused on the environment. This is seen in the reuse of materials. Architecture developed an excellent rapport with nature that is now being destroyed. The two are now at odds. So the reasons for going back to investigate tradition are not just to return to the simplicity of ancient architectural design. It also has to do with creating a new world where man, nature, animal and plant species are safeguarded. In this scheme architecture embraces a wide range of relations. The moment a building is completed is not the culminating moment of its existence. We must imagine it in ten years when the walls will be covered in moss and the roof will have a luxuriant green growth. Only then will architecture be in harmony with nature. Today’s splendid new buildings that exude freshness and innovation will quickly lose their glitter.
We should not be overly confident when measuring ourselves against nature. We are arrogant and obtuse, failing to understand our limits. Past generations were well aware of these limits and their respect for nature meant they did not go beyond their own sphere of competence. It was not a sign of weakness, rather of responsibility and respect. Admitting one’s own limitations increases the likelihood of being able to bring about a “different world”, which means broadening our possibility of action. Designing according to environmentally sustainable principles means doing away with the one-size-fits-all model that became ubiquitous with globalisation. Tradition cannot be summed up in a pithy quip; rather it is a means of making the places and ingredients of architecture unique with every brief, because blended with the particular historical context. Developing our awareness of and basing our action on a profound understanding of traditional culture allow us to resist the strong pull of industrialisation. All-important is to know the right balance. Travelling through the countryside, I realise every area has its own particular character, dialect and architectural language. This is what I mean by culture.
Contemporary architecture has developed as a consequence of different cultural contexts. The word globalisation is on everyone’s lips but how can we recognise our own cultural identity and find our place in the world? We need an answer. Otherwise, we will lower ourselves to the lowest level of globalisation.
Tradition cannot be equated with “the weight of culture”. Tradition is something that can be integrated and become part of modernisation. “Tradition” cannot be glibly reduced to what was there before - just as “modern” is not everything that is tomorrow. Modern architecture must draw from the teachings of the traditional context and seek that harmonious balance.
Preserving tradition is not an aim in itself. However, it is necessary to carry forward past eras and recoup traditional styles, including them in urban and local contexts. This is why I always place great importance on research and architectural models.
In traditional culture buildings have always had a major role. The result of architecture cannot be passed off as just another type of artistic expression because an architecture has an impact on man’s life, helping to sustain or destroy social harmony. Today architecture is required to take on board the sweeping changes and new scenarios present in China. All China’s social problems are visible in its architectural projects; it follows that architecture should exert its power to resolve society’s problems. Designing and building should not be an act of self-celebration but rather one of seeking the salvation and improvement of the city. Jettisoning the heritage of the past means severing our bonds with history and jeopardising the conservation of the few cultures still left to be saved.

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