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Master architect Wang Shu combines construction and nature, modern and tradition, all for the people

By Li Qian, Li Hong and Bian Zizheng| Global Times| Updated: April 4, 2023 L M S


Ningbo Museum

In the latest Chinese hit drama series adapted from the award-winning sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem, humans' unearthly mission of fighting alien army supporters is headquartered in a modern, spacious building with a somewhat dilapidated-looking facade.

This "Asian Combat Command Center" in the drama towers like a castle; in real life, the building is the Ningbo Museum in China's Zhejiang Province, a unique city landmark designed by Wang Shu.

People as criterion

Wang clearly takes pride in his Ningbo Museum design, especially when telling the Global Times about an elderly woman he met outside the museum. The woman had previously lived in the neighborhood near where the museum now stands. Her entire community was relocated to make way for the construction of the city's business district.


Wang Shu 

When her neighborhood was demolished, the grey and white bricks and tiles from the torn down homes were recycled at Wang's request, and were reused to build the museum's exterior walls and give the structure a time-tested and locally organic look, as if the building were a long-standing fixture of the local landscape.

In half a year, the woman visited the museum four time to reminisce, admiring the building which inadvertently gave her previous home a second life. As Wang showed the photo taken of him talking with her with the museum in the background, his pride is obvious.

This is exactly what Wang wanted and insisted upon. "When you go to any village before demolition, you can see the walls of villagers' homes. They are so brilliant that you can take any piece of the wall directly to the museum," Wang said. The villages in Ningbo he visited use eight kinds of ordinary and locally available materials for domestic construction, and "they are comparable with any master architect's work."

As a result of his design, the museum instantly became a popular destination for local people. In the first three months of the new museum's opening, more than a million people flocked to visit the venue.

Fusion of time and nature

In architecture, Wang relishes the organic construction of informal buildings, those catering to local people's needs. In turn, he wants the buildings he designs to give a "fluffy, moist, and breathable" feeling.

"In the minds of Chinese people, architecture means a lifestyle imbued with nature, and it will flourish with time," and this is how Wang Shu views relations between architecture, time and nature. When the buildings are time-tested, they mature along with the people living in them, and together they create memories.

In 2012, Wang Shu won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, becoming the first Chinese national recognized by this prize. His architectural designs have made the world reflect on relations between tradition and the future, which is particularly meaningful in the swift urbanization of many developing countries.

Wang's attention to the combination of tradition and the future is fully reflected in his design of the Hangzhou branch of the National Archives of Publications and Culture. The city of Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, was one of the ancient capitals of Chinese dynasties. Wang recreated the Song Dynasty's (960-1279) painted screens in his design for the project and incorporated mountains and rivers - typical in ancient Chinese paintings - to successfully make the complex a "modern-day Song structure."

For Wang, in traditional Chinese architecture, the protection of nature, land, and vegetation is above all other missions, as he believes that city structures are subordinate to the natural consistency of mountains and rivers. His other signature work, the Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art, is an example of time's consistency.

Unlike many modern buildings that are in their prime time the day they are completed and decay with time, the structures that Wang Shu relishes appear to be in ever better condition, as the construction materials mature and nature gradually takes control of the buildings as time passes.


Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou

Now that the Xiangshan Campus building is nearly two decades old, it is nearing its prime: Trees and shrubs are thriving, ivy crawls all over the exterior walls, meadows surround pedestrian paths, and the natural scenes on the campus change along with the seasons. Walking on the campus is like being immersed in a painting.

For Wang Shu, an architect needs not only to explore the possibility of new buildings, but also to aim to reconstruct a world full of nature and mountain-river poetic life. Take Hangzhou, his favorite Chinese city, as an example. 

It has a unique position in Chinese urban development history, as the city is viewed as a prototypical Chinese city with a brilliant "half lake-mountain, half city" landscape.

"Buildings and nature are inseparable just like in Chinese landscape paintings. Such a value placed on a nature-infused lifestyle is deeply rooted in the Chinese history of architecture," Wang said.

Carrying forward lifestyles

"I don't talk about architecture; I just build houses. Architecture is far away from people, but houses are rooted in people's lives. The houses I build need to take root in the hearts of Chinese people," he said.

Just like French writer-thinker Roland Barthes said, life is all about trivial things, which Wang Shu loves in life. He told the Global Times that he usually wanders around streets while seeking architectural inspirations, including in Beijing's hutong areas, Shanghai's narrow lanes, and Hangzhou's old streets. 

In the south, it rains a lot, so every household has drainage slots in the eaves and you can hear the rainwater, a neighbor's sink may be constructed just around a corner, and several households may share one mailbox … such, shared, open, public communities are unachievable in modern high-rises, he lamented.

During the interview, Wang stressed that new buildings and facilities need to help people maintain their lifestyles, so as to preserve tradition and carry on history. He relishes the peaceful and true everyday life in old buildings, and therefore tries to keep it alive in his own way.

In 2017, Wang Shu started his first village renovation project, the Wencun village in Dongqiao township, Hangzhou. The village houses were built as early as in the Ming and Qing dynasties along a creek.

Wang designed 24 houses, each according to their original structure, and preserved their original functions as much as possible, like spaces for airing, restoring farming tools, and rearing silkworms, and especially courtyards where Chinese families' major events and rituals occur.


Hangzhou branch of the National Archives of Publications and Culture Photos: Courtesy of Wang Shu

Wang is dedicated to contributing to people's lifestyles, rather than uprooting and replacing them. After the completion of the renovation project, Wang revisited the village and saw that villagers had kept doing laundry on the balcony, and airing dry vegetables on the creek's railings - all the renovated facilities were useful and better. "Their lifestyles were unchanged and were just as before the renovation," he said proudly.

The Pritzker Architecture Prize Jury recognizes Wang Shu's architecture as "exemplary in its strong sense of cultural continuity and re-invigorated tradition." Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena once said Wang Shu produces masterpieces when a monument is needed, but also very careful and contained architecture when a monument is not the case. 

In Wang Shu's mind, buildings can't exist without human activity, and the true-to-life, down-to-earth architectural traditions of Chinese urban and rural construction touch his heart, even though they may not always look pre-planned or regulated, as "one of the best parts of Chinese culture is that we maintain diversity."

As China progresses on its path to rapid modernization, how to incorporate traditional architectural concepts into the mass urban renovation needs has become a focus of attention for Wang.

Chinese-style construction tends to use materials available from nature and respects nature. Prefabricated houses could be one direction of future projects for sustainable construction, according to Wang.

"Architects need to convey cultural confidence," he said. "Construction should be seen as building a small world, which is comprised of the building, people living in it, and everything else changing along with the times; together they form architecture."

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