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STRUCTURES OF EVERYDAY LIFE: THE ARCHITECTURE OF WANG SHU

Amateur Architecture Studio, Ningbo History Museum, 2008, Zhejiang, China. Photo: Clément Guillaume.

FIVE YEARS AFTER THE COLOSSAL PAGEANTRY of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese architecture continues to aim for awe. And if the spectacle of the games was accompanied, even enabled, by a showy physical reinvention of the nation’s capital, that unprecedented integration of technical and financial bravado is still reverberating in other equally audacious ventures around the country. Projects such as the Shanghai Tower, set to become China’s tallest building upon completion in 2014, or Changsha’s Sky City—a proposal for the world’s tallest building, which was initially intended to be entirely constructed in only 210 days—embody the scale, ambition, and sheer force of the country’s inextricably intertwined economic and physical development.

Indeed, most outside observers understand China’s relentless architectural ascent as emblematic of the degree to which China’s potent strain of party-led, autocratic capitalism has come to dominate the nation’s cultural production. But a counternarrative has recently become equally prevalent within China itself—one that sees architecture as an increasingly autonomous discipline. In this view, architecture is that rare domain that offers the potential for social critique without directly opposing the ideological machinations of the state.1 Given architecture’s emergence as a prominent force in contemporary Chinese cultural expression, questions concerning its future trajectory have become imbued with an urgency that underscores the complexities surrounding the pace and nature of the country’s continued development.

Nowhere is the paradox of Chinese architecture more apparent than in the reception of the work of Wang Shu. The Hangzhou-based designer’s 2012 Pritzker Prize—the first awarded to a Chinese national—has been simultaneously interpreted by the foreign press as evidence of “architectural dissidence” and “a celebration of the [Chinese] government.” That such appraisals can coexist reveals the impasse generated by these two seemingly irreconcilable readings of the state of Chinese architecture today.2 At the same time, the confused reception of Wang’s Pritzker win presents an opportunity for a more nuanced exploration of China’s architectural culture, eschewing party-centric dichotomies of complicity or resistance.

In explaining their decision, the Pritzker Prize jury cited the raw tactility of Wang’s buildings, their almost unprecedented foregrounding of materiality. Wang’s engagement with traditional materials and building techniques, perhaps most famously expressed in the masonry facade of his Ningbo History Museum, completed in 2008, has garnered particular international acclaim. There, his use of bricks and mortar pushes beyond architecture’s penchant for saddling materials with the impossible semiotic or phenomenological burden of registering the particulars of place—as if simply using local materials could tie a building meaningfully to its site. Wang’s work insists that when we talk about material, we’re really talking about the far-flung and complex economic and social systems required for their fabrication, the cultural and political factors at play in their re-presentation as architecture, and the agency they achieve through subsequent reception and interpretation.

Questions of material are not only at the very heart of Wang’s practice—they are key to China’s recent development. As we’re reminded daily, the nation has become the epicenter of both contemporary architectural production and globalized industrial manufacturing. That convergence has catalyzed a series of profound social shifts, including the largest migration in human history, as a formerly rural population of agricultural laborers is transformed into an urbanized industrial workforce. Architecture has played an obvious and operative role in this dramatic refashioning of entire landscapes and, with them, ways of life. Local cultures, and particularly local modes of production—including techniques for building—are changing, as are the structures and substances that have literally embodied them. Wang’s commitment to materiality and his investigation of the corporeal and representational implications of craft suggest that architecture might not just be a symptom of China’s ongoing transformations but could transform them in turn.

GIVEN THE IMMENSE CULTURAL and political weight with which Chinese architecture is now burdened, it seems incredible that the discipline virtually disappeared during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76. The era’s fervent ideological bent rendered architecture an affluent, bourgeois pursuit. It was largely replaced by the hard science of engineering and the physical act of construction, culminating in on-site collaborations known as san jiahe, or “three-in-one combinations”: building teams consisting of government cadres, construction workers, and building technicians. Architecture was only able to reclaim its footing and its legitimacy in the years following Mao’s death in 1976.

Amateur Architecture Studio, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Phase II, 2007, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Photo: Clément Guillaume.

And so the country’s major architecture departments, including those at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Tianjin University, Tongji University in Shanghai, and the Nanjing Institute of Technology (now known as Southeast University), would reconstitute themselves two years later, in 1978, coinciding with the first round of post-Mao economic reforms. That same year, I. M. Pei opened the door for foreign architectural practices to enter China for the first time since 1949, through his involvement in an international consortium of investors and developers organized to produce what would become the Fragrant Hill Hotel, a postmodern complex outside Beijing inspired by southern Chinese vernacular style.

The completion of Pei’s surprisingly ornamental project in 1982 came the year after Wang’s enrollment in the Nanjing Institute of Technology, where he met his future wife and professional partner, Lu Wenyu. Born in 1963 in the semiautonomous northwestern region of Xinjiang to a musician and amateur carpenter father and a librarian mother, Wang arrived in Nanjing at the beginning of a sea change in Chinese architecture. Although few if any Chinese buildings from the 1980s have attracted significant attention, many of the country’s most prominent architectural thinkers and producers came of age during that period. As the decade began, students and long-suffering faculty suddenly found themselves largely freed from the state’s stifling ideological shackles and awash in a deluge of previously forbidden international stimulation. Heated debate ensued over when, how, and whether China should relate its own reemerging architectural discourse to that of Europe and America. Did China require more substantial engagement with the lessons of midcentury modernism and the work of by-then-canonical practitioners like Le Corbusier or Mies? Or could the country’s architects jump straight into postmodernism, following a shift that was by then largely a fait accompli in the West, thanks to architects such as Robert Venturi and Michael Graves? Alternatively, should foreign influences be avoided altogether in favor of a revitalization of China’s traditional architectural lexicon? If at first glance such academic posturing might seem insular and innocuous, these questions were, in fact, loaded with political import: Not only did they suggest a new autonomy for the discipline, but, in acknowledging that Chinese architecture had fallen behind that of the West, they implicitly critiqued the party’s devastating attempts to reinforce its own political power through the repressive cultural reforms initiated under Mao.

An eager if uncertain scramble for answers led to surprising compressions of time and space. In 1980, China’s most prominent architectural journal, Jianzhu xuebao, called postmodernism “the new modernism” before a subsequent issue corrected the mistranslation.3 The first full Chinese edition of Le Corbusier’s 1921 modernist classic Vers une Architecture (published in English as Towards a New Architecture in 1927) appeared in 1981, just five years before the Chinese-language edition of critic Charles Jencks’s enormously influential 1977 polemic The Language of Post-modern Architecture. Neither was particularly well translated, and with few Maoist-era faculty capable of effectively guiding students through interpretations of then–de rigueur foreign architectural discourse, students were left to seek the counsel of retired professors trained abroad prior to World War II, who represented China’s last officially encouraged engagement with Western architectural theory. Post-1978 distribution of this generation’s own pre-1949 research, which had been shelved for decades in the name of ideological circumspection, contributed to the era’s uncanny convergences of pre- and postrevolution, modern and postmodern, Chinese and foreign architectural discourses.

While modernism and postmodernism thus became available to Chinese architecture students almost simultaneously, many of them—including Wang—ultimately rejected modernism’s strict understanding of form as an index of function, which offered little more than a recapitulation of China’s prereform, socialist design methodology. A more postmodern approach that emphasized architectural form as a kind of cultural language—of given signifiers and icons to be recombined at will—presented the theoretical underpinning necessary to resurrect China’s own imperial-era building traditions, while postmodernism’s historical and literary emphasis nicely echoed the concurrent rediscovery of the rich and neglected history of China’s literati.4 It also suggested some cultural equivalence with then-current trends in Europe, the US, and Japan. Suddenly, Chinese architecture could be seen as a semiotic system liberated from the party’s own ideological framework, thereby affirming the validity of traditional customs, practices, and forms while suggesting their potential for renewed significance within contemporary Chinese culture. All this is why Wang professes to draw on everything from exquisite Ming- and Qing-dynasty Jiangnan garden typology, to China’s early-twentieth-century engagement with rationalized beaux-arts planning models, to Zong Bing (AD 375–443), one of China’s first landscape painters—an omnivorous ambition that runs throughout his work.

Amateur Architecture Studio, Ningbo History Museum, 2008, Zhejiang, China. Photo: Iwan Baan.

Following graduation in 1988, Wang became a professor of architecture at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou (then called the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts). His first major commission, for a youth recreation center in Haining, Zhejiang Province, begun in 1989 and completed in 1990, reveals an enthusiastic if unresolved interest in the notion that architecture could comprise a grammar capable of manipulation via material, structure, and form. The building’s program—composed of a gym, a dance studio, classrooms, and a day-care facility—is divided into two major masses. The gym is located on the ground floor of the first, with the day-care center above it, while the other volume incorporates classrooms, offices, and the studio. These are bound together by a large central core, painted bright red, which contains a complex series of circulatory systems, including two unusually arranged circular stairways and a more conventional stairwell. Three massive horizontal beams interpenetrate the building’s three volumes, visually lashing them together. One actually pushes through a window, generating an aggressive tension between structure, form, and function that both challenges and reinforces the building’s purpose as a site for extracurricular play.

Wang’s unruly beams and ludic forms were daring and innovative—all the more so when considered in the context of China’s economic and political dislocations at the time. Even after the debates of the ’80s, many buildings were still copied from books of preexisting models, and massive, state-run institutes staffed by anonymous teams of architects were still responsible for the majority of the country’s depressingly rote building designs. Yet in many respects, the Haining project echoes formal experiments in “cardboard architecture” promoted by Peter Eisenman over a decade earlier, which explored production as a process more of conceptual design than of material fabrication.

AFTER A HANDFUL OF smaller commissions at the end of the decade, Wang abruptly changed course, departing from his conceptual investigations. In fact, he dropped out of the architectural profession entirely, embarking on a period of self-imposed exile that has since become mythologized, both in China and abroad, as his first substantial immersion in the nature of traditional Chinese building culture. Between 1990 and 1997, Wang removed himself from the professional system in order to learn the practice of vernacular construction techniques, such as rammed earth, timber, and masonry construction, from craftsmen in and around Hangzhou. The sabbatical, financially enabled by Lu, allowed Wang to gradually reconcile his own lingering interest in the avant-garde with the market-driven development beginning to exert increasing pressure upon his field. By the early ’90s, the first wave of land reforms had emphatically transformed building into business, leaving architectural design hovering awkwardly between a cultural pursuit that fed nostalgia for China’s rapidly disappearing past and a catalyst for economic speculation ushering in its future.

In 1997, Wang and Lu founded Amateur Architecture Studio, their chosen name indicating uneasiness over the implications of professional status in their newly reconfigured discipline. Wang’s relationship to architectural practice was, at this point, clearly complicated, as evinced by his decision to enroll in a Ph.D. program at Tongji University in concurrence with the firm’s founding. There he completed a dissertation titled “The Fictional City” in 2000. The sprawling study builds upon earlier postmodern notions of architectural and urban form as signs. Specifically, Wang followed the approach promoted by Italian architect Aldo Rossi—whose 1966 Architecture of the City attempted to “dispossess, reassociate and thus transform real places and real times”—mining the historical evolution of the urban environment for ostensibly timeless and universal architectural forms that could embody a kind of collective architectural memory.5 Rossi’s dual quest for the timeless and the new, a tabula rasa that nevertheless reinvigorated tradition, resonated with Wang’s own search for an architectural syntax—rooted in historical urban forms and traditional architectural techniques—through which China’s bewildering urban upheaval might be more deeply understood and even challenged.

Under the lingering influence of Rossi, Wang faced a seemingly impossible task: to merge a long-standing interest in the cultural and mnemonic power of form with brute stuff—the complex realities of architecture’s material realization that Wang had encountered during his time with the craftsmen of Hangzhou. So Wang and Lu set out to pit the solidity of overtly tectonic constructions, basic building forms visibly shaped by processes of making, against the dematerialized, abstracted economic forces enveloping the country. In this way, they confronted a duality that both Jencks and Fredric Jameson have famously described as the distinction between the brick, a physical index of the static, unit-by-unit measurability of architectural production, and the balloon, or the voluminous, curtain wall–enclosed expanses that came to define the spaces of late capitalism.6

Amateur Architecture Studio, Ningbo History Museum, 2008, Zhejiang, China. Photo: Clément Guillaume.

This opposition would become dramatically visible in the duo’s most famous project to date, the Ningbo History Museum, and its much-discussed masonry facade in particular. In an ironic nod to the museum’s program, which is devoted to Ningbo’s history and folk culture, Wang and Lu’s building is constructed from bricks harvested from the demolished remains of the approximately thirty villages originally located on the site, which was rezoned by Ningbo officials to accommodate a massive new public square fronted by the museum and two government office complexes. The scale of construction required several teams of laborers, resulting in a tapestry of techniques that undercuts any essentialization of the work as some singular expression of Chinese regionalism. Instead, sections of the architecture’s brick- and tile-work compete with each other for prominence, inscribing the entire facade with a taut and unresolved energy stemming from the process of building itself. The vertiginous patchwork thus performs, indexes, and monumentalizes the complex dynamics between labor and development in China today. It emphasizes the vast scale of waste involved in urban renewal by paradoxically channeling that surfeit into form, an articulation of the pragmatism and thrift that new party leadership is desperately trying to establish after years of official excess. So while the building was enabled by the cycles of demolition and redevelopment that now grip all of China’s cities, it also stands as a pointed and poignant trace of these processes.

Yet for all of the international attention de­­servedly heaped upon the museum, there has been surprisingly little written about its interior spaces. Wang himself has described the building as a kind of artificial hill, and though there is certainly something uniquely topographical to the gradual slope and texture of its monolithic form, this characterization also reveals the architect’s own discomfort with what is happening behind the building’s celebrated facade. Like his first project, the museum is organized around two central masses, both of which consist primarily of galleries wrapped by tangled strands of circulation. It is the approach to and passages within the building, rather than the spaces to which these approaches lead, that mark the museum’s most interesting moments, largely because they offer the most direct confrontation with the structure’s raw materiality. These trajectories include several wide sets of stairs defined by a staggered series of balustrades that lead viewers to each of the museum’s main exhibition halls, and escalators that allow visitors to bypass the exhibitions in favor of the roof. There, a series of paths cleave the building into thick chunks, enabling an intimate study of the building’s detailed if indiscriminate masonry patterning.

THE SECRET OF WANG’S DEFT ENTWINEMENT of humble material and soaring monumentality, physical labor and economic critique, lies in the brick itself. Although it is often overshadowed by the country’s more celebrated legacy of wooden architecture, brick is one of China’s oldest construction materials. Historically molded by anonymous laborers, the finished product was paradoxically endowed with surprising individuality—largely thanks to its coloring, which varied according to the composition of available clay and so revealed its regional origins. This differentiation was reinforced by stamps imprinted on each brick’s surface to identify its founding workshop. But these local ecologies of production have been gradually subsumed by standardized manufacturing techniques, resulting in the reduction of a rich array of regional shapes, sizes, and colors into one basic red-clay variety. This shift captures the kind of de-skilling increasingly enveloping the country as localized craft gives way to urbanized industrial production.

Over the last fifteen years, in fact, a number of Chinese architects and artists alike have employed the brick as a measurable unit of quantifiable productivity in ways that both exploit and overcome its utilitarian origin, transforming it from a stable or permanent building block into a gauge of things lost and gained. In Souvenir from Beijing, 2002, Ai Weiwei enclosed a brick salvaged from a destroyed traditional courtyard home in a box made from timber from a demolished temple, creating a hybrid artifact of loss. Wang Wei’s 2003 installation Temporary Space featured local laborers who were paid first to deliver twenty-five thousand bricks from Beijing’s outskirts to the Long March Space gallery in the city’s 798 Art District, then to use them to construct a four-walled enclosure in the center of the gallery, and finally to tear the structure down immediately following its completion. The bricks were bought for 0.13 RMB each (approximately one penny in 2003 currency values), only to be sold back to the workers for 0.05 RMB.7 Here, the intrinsic value of immaterial labor confronts the hard currency of material construction, reenacting the seemingly endless, irrational flows and conversions dictating China’s reinvention.

Amateur Architecture Studio, Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Phase II, 2007, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Photo: Clément Guillaume.

This collective emphasis on the brick—not merely as localized object but as signifier of time, work, and worth—also resonates in the recent spate of materially grounded architectural work in China. Wang’s Ningbo History Museum continues to receive the most international acclaim, but figures and firms such as Yung Ho Chang, Liu Jiakun, Zhang Lei, Zhao Yang, Standard architecture, Meng Yan of Urbanus, and Trace Architecture Office (TAO), among many others, are all using concrete, brick, stone, and wood to explore the equivocal conditions of contemporary Chinese architectural practice by intervening in and even disrupting the very processes of modernization that enabled architecture’s own development as a discipline in China. Urbanus’s Tulou building, for example, deploys a form based upon massive, traditional rammed-earth constructions in an attempt to provide high-quality, low-income housing for China’s ever-expanding migrant labor population, while the Gaoligong Museum of Handicraft Paper, designed by TAO in Xinzhuang, Yunnan Province, celebrates a dying handicraft with a series of simple wooden studios.

This reactivation of the brick is inseparable from modern architecture’s own conflicted and somewhat obscured history with the material. Modernism may call to mind visions of sleek steel and glass, but the brick was also there all along. None other than Frank Lloyd Wright emphasized the astonishing contrast between the brick’s value as a commodity and its utility as a construction material, purportedly beginning a public lecture by asking the audience whether they knew what a brick was, and then answering: “It is a small, worthless, ordinary thing that costs 11 cents but has a wonderful quality. Give me a brick and it becomes worth its weight in gold.”8

Wright’s appraisal is echoed in the incongruities of the Ningbo History Museum. Its success as architecture stems from its ability to salvage the brick from the history of modernism without abandoning the idiosyncratic environment of contemporary China. The building does not subject us to the nostalgic sentimentality that so often accompanies contemporary craft production, nor does it foretell the dystopic vaporization of labor in a postindustrial, neoliberal global economy. Rather, it demonstrates the fundamental and persistent hybridity of our spaces, which are composed of bothobdurate matter and inflated size, brick and balloon.

A FASCINATION WITH ARCHITECTURAL MATERIAL, and with architecture as a materialization of culture and labor, persists in Wang and Lu’s most recent commission, the China Academy of Art’s satellite campus at Xiangshan. Thanks to the duo’s recent celebrity, they were given complete control over the project and total freedom from the direction of school officials, city planners, and local bureaucrats. Rather than building within the project’s original site, Hangzhou’s massive multi-institution University Town, Wang and Lu chose a 533,333-square-meter area nestled in the surrounding tea-producing hills. The resulting campus includes various classroom buildings, design studios, administrative offices, dormitories, cafeterias, and guesthouses, some of which are still under construction. Each of the main campus structures derives from one of four basic formal types—all focusing on the roof—in an echo of the firm’s earlier experimentations with traditional Chinese architecture. These include an exaggerated, sloping roof profile variously paired with wood, brick, or concrete volumes below; deeply overhanging roofs made from thin strips of tile that serve to protect a building’s interior spaces from the sun’s glare; uneven slabs of concrete and tile placed atop whitewashed studio buildings, around and through which snake elevated walkways; and simple, flat-roofed dormitories wrapped with slender concrete brise-soleil. While the basic geometry and materials of these approaches are reminiscent of various Chinese vernacular structures, here each has been manipulated and expanded into a new, more monumental scale. And while traditional building techniques are employed throughout—rammed-earth, cement cast in bamboo formwork, plain masonry construction—the relationship between form and material remains hermetic. Pressed to function at this massive scale, each material maintains an exaggerated but still typical tectonic logic.

Although the campus is intended to underscore Wang and Lu’s commitment to the techniques of traditional architectural production in today’s China, the extensive formal repetition and consistently massive scale merely create a simulacrum of traditional Chinese architectural standards. As in Ningbo, there is an obvious degree of attention paid to the material composition of each structure, but here the omnipresence of fragmented yet overtly Chinese building forms and systems overwhelms the visitor, diluting the representational gestures on display. The generative tensions evident in the Ningbo Museum’s brick envelope, on the other hand, embody both the conflicted nature of its own program and the charged relationships between architect and craftsman, building and city, government and citizen. The building presents itself as an authentic act of architectural reclamation amid a grand urban experiment in the artificial. The Xiangshan campus, by contrast, effaces such symbolic ambitions. Rather than actively engaging a building culture in transition, it has been embalmed in an insular, rhetorical display of swooping roofs, exposed beams, and thick earthen walls that signify little more than the architect’s own professional retreat.

Amateur Architecture Studio, Youth Center, 1990, Haining, Zhejiang, China. Photo: Cole Roskam.

This retreat seems to be a permanent one. In a recent public lecture at the University of Hong Kong, Wang announced he will no longer be working in the Chinese city, as its uncontrolled sprawl—which he blamed on China’s blind embrace of Western planning models after 1949—is not compatible with the explorations he wishes to pursue. His disavowal reveals an understandable but nevertheless disappointing cynicism with respect to China’s current architectural condition. If Chinese architects intend to maintain some hold over the international discourse of architectural production today, it will be because they continue to push the operative properties of materials such as brick against the chaotic forces reshaping China’s cities. At its best, Wang’s work does not so much oppose the gaudy towers and parametric curves that now litter China’s skylines as complement them, offering a thoughtful addendum to thirty years of rapid, unfocused urban growth. Just as those buildings benefit from a critical other, Wang’s architecture is likewise galvanized by their tension. It is through this exchange, not despite it, that his work illuminates the potential of critical Chinese architecture to recast the form and substance of the country’s building culture today.

Cole Roskam is an Assistant Professor of architectural history at the University of Hong Kong.

NOTES

1. Zhu Jianfei, “Opening the Concept of Critical Architecture: The Case of Modern China and the Issue of the State,” in Non West Modernist Past: On Architecture & Modernities, ed. William S. W. Lim and Jiat-Hwee Chang (Singapore: World Scientific Publications, 2012), 105–16.

2. See Evan Chakroff, “Recasting History: The Ningbo Historic Museum,” Log 24 (2012): 57–62; Thomas de Monchaux, “Toward a Dissident Architecture?,” n+1, May 25, 2012, www.nplusonemag.com/toward-a-dissident-architecture.

3. Yang Yun, “You xifang xiandai jianzhu xin sichao yinqi de lianxiang,” Jianzhu xuebao 1 (1980): 26–34.

4. Wu Yonghui, “Shi cong bijiao wenxue kan Zhongguo jianzhu,” Xin Jianzhu 4 (1985): 41–43.

5. Peter Eisenman, “Editor’s Introduction,” in The Architecture of the City, by Aldo Rossi (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), 8.

6. For Jencks, the contrast aptly expresses the tension between the static measurability of traditional tectonic construction and the dematerialized, voluminous expanse of the curtain wall. Jameson subsequently employed the metaphor only in an effort to discredit it altogether, proposing that the globalized scale of land speculation and the related, invisible vectors of international capitalism both render such traditional binary distinctions as form and nonform or plan and space invalid. See Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998 (New York: Verso, 1998), 162–89. See also Charles Jencks, The New Moderns: From Late to Neo-Modernism (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), 85.

7. Philip Tinari, “What Does Not Stand Cannot Fall: Wang Wei’s Temporary Space,” in Temporary Space, exh. cat. (25000 Cultural Transmission Center, 2003), n. p.

8. James W. P. Campbell, Brick: A World History (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 271.