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Wang Shu’s influence as the antithesis of China’s rush to urbanisation is greater than his output

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Paul Finch’s Letter from London: Wang Shu rejected the idea that China had to keep building at its current pace, suggesting there were more than enough houses

This year’s Pritzker Prize is to be awarded to Chinese architect Wang Shu in acknowledgement of an extraordinary architectural life-story – a story which a rapt audience enjoyed at the Australian Institute of Architects’ conference in Brisbane last week.

Introduced by Glenn Murcutt, another Pritzker Prize-winner whose work is at the slow end of the slow/fast spectrum, Wang outlined the results of 10 years of conservation projects that run directly counter to the mainstream activities of the architecture, development and construction industries in contemporary China.

A witty man, he explained that the name of his practice, Amateur Architecture Studio, was a response to what he saw being designed by professionals in China, most of which was ‘rubbish’, the design equivalent of fast-food.

By contrast, what he was interested in was the revival of Chinese traditions but in contemporary form; the re-use and recycling of materials – available because of the comprehensive demolition programmes in the country (90 per cent of traditional buildings have gone in the past 30 years), and the acknowledgement that the art and craft of drawing and, indeed, construction is infinitely improved as the result of working by hand.

That his tiny studio (seven people) has managed to survive for 13 years seems remarkable, especially since his policy is to accept only one commission a year. He has only carried one project for a developer, and that only because the person involved was a friend, a writer who had turned to development almost as an art project. They had spent two years talking about the residential scheme before building it, and very good it looked too, with deep balconies to allow each resident to grow food outside their apartment.

The practice is based in Hangzhou, which used to be five hours from Shanghai by train but is now 45 minutes by express. A ‘small city’ of only 8 million, it is located next to a giant lake, and historically was part of a landscape into which buildings almost vanished into their surroundings. Architecture as part of landscape itself. Wang’s comparison slides showed why his dislike of the Las Vegas aesthetic is so profound.

He insisted architecture needed to be seen in the context of the natural landscape, and that the relationship between water, trees and vegetation was critical. He rejected the idea that China had to keep building at its current pace, suggesting that there were already more than enough houses and ‘we should stop’.

This seems impossible, given the rapid urbanisation still taking place. Moreover, if his assertion that 99 per cent of Chinese architects are working in the western tradition is true, the re-emergence of a profession that believes in hand-drawing and traditional building techniques looks even less of a possibility.

But, as with other original thinkers, Wang’s influence may far exceed the physical output of his practice. And his ideas and attitudes were mirrored by other speakers at an excellent conference (at which I myself had the pleasure of speaking).

His proposition that architecture should be seen as part of water and landscape found plenty of support, including a fine presentation by Kathryn Findlay. She briefly discussed the Anish Kapoor Orbit project, where she has been the architect called upon to help turn sculpture and structure into a building, but concentrated on earlier work, including the fabulous truss-wall concrete house in Tokyo and two pool houses each using thatch for the roof, but in an entirely modern way.

As for water, this informed a brilliant presentation at Brisbane by Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha, of which more next week.

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