Wang Shu interview (part 1 of 2)

Wang Shu: “you can only listen to me”

Translated by Ding Mi 丁觅

This is a translation of a transcripted interview: “YANG LAN – ONE-ON-ONE‘ – Wang Shu: The Reflection of Architecture.”, broadcast on Chinese Network Television [CNTV].

PART 1 (of 2  episodes) Watch the original Chinese language video here:

Wang Shu_screen grab

Programme Introduction

On 25th  May 2012, Chinese architect Wang Shu was honored with The Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is regarded as the Nobel Prize of the architecture world. This is the first time that a Chinese architect has won this prize and Wang Shu is also the youngest person ever to hold the Pritzker. However, before this happened, the Chinese public wasn’t too familiar with either Wang Shu… or the Pritzker. With news of the award published everywhere, we have to ask why this achievement has suddenly attracted so much attention.

Yang Lan (Interviewer): It is fair to say that before you were honoured with the prize, most Chinese people didn’t know who you were or what the Pritzker Architecture Prize is. But you have attracted a great deal of attention over it: why do you think that is?
Wang Shu: I think that it probably the fact that we live in a much more diverse age.

YL: What kind of diversity are you referring to?

WS: Well it’s diversity that comes with the development of economic forces and the process of urbanization. At first, everyone wants urbanization and a semblance of difference. But actually, this process affects everyone’s life, and has a psychological effect. And so while people think that this kind of diversification only occurs in the appearance of things, actually much has been lost. Therefore, everyone has started thinking about this. In the meantime, I was honored to receive the prize.

Wang Shu’s masterpiece is NingboMuseum and Xiangshan campus in China’s Academy of Art. Like Lord Palumbo said on the announcement of the prize: “The question of a proper relationship between the past and the present is particularly timely, for the recent process of urbanization in China invites debate as to whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should look only toward the future. As with any great architect, Wang Shu´s work is able to transcend that debate, producing an architecture that is timeless, deeply rooted in its context and yet universal.”

YL: The announcement of the prize made specific mention to one of your designs: NingboMuseum, and the judges think this architecture has originality and can evoke memories in the past, even though it doesn’t use the historical elements directly. I am wondering what kind of memory can this building evoke in first time visitors to the building?

WS: Actually, this kind of reaction doesn’t only occur with visitors after it’s been built, it already exists at the beginning of the project. Ningbo is a city that contains lots of cultural heritage. Many merchants lived here and it is a quite a rich place, so that the quality of existing architecture is quite good there. At the beginning of the project, I did some research and I knew that it is a region that contained around 30 very beautiful towns. Very beautiful. While I was doing my project, twenty nine and a half of them were demolished. Even the half that was left shocked me when I visited it. It’s so exquisite; and it is such a shame that they’ve been demolished. The process of modernization in China is a kind of misunderstanding, where everyone seems to think that we don’t have enough cities in China and that’s why we need urbanization. I have never agreed with that. From the buildings around us, from Ming dynasty, we have long been an urbanized country. Our villages are actually towns – not the dispersed villages that many people think of. In southern China, the standard of urbanization is quite high but not with the kind of modern cities found in the western world. When you look at the cities in China now, their cultural infrastructure has been damaged and people live in a city without memory. Therefore when I did Ningbo museum, I decided to collect all the rubble that I could find and build the museum with it.

Narrator: The façade material of Ningbo museum is the material from the demolished old buildings. Those tiles are arranged according to their colour and it took 10 months for the workers to finish piecing it together.

WS: I still remember one of the clients shouting at me in a meeting. He asked me why I used so much old material in such a Central Business District location (known as little Manhattan). He questioned me about what I was doing building a new museum with those old and dirty materials.

YL: How did you respond?

WS: I said that Ningbo is a place without memory and I wanted to use the materials as a way to find that memory of our past. Of course he couldn’t understand at that time. I said, we are actually doing something new: but the understanding of new things is not clear yet for everyone at the meeting. He said: ‘yes it is’. I said: “but who here understands it best? Surely that is me? He said: ‘Yes, again’.  And I said: ‘So regarding these ‘new things’, you can only listen to me then?

YL: You used a kind of authoritarianism approach, then?

WS: But this is the truth. When this building was under construction, there were so many discussions and disagreements, but probably the client was moved by our attitude. They’d never seen architects put so much time and energy into one project.

YL: Can you give me some detail about your attitude?

WS: Generally, architects do not in charge anything for the project until after they finish the drawings. Chinese architects go to site three times on average during a project: the first time is for site research, the second time is for the beginning of construction and the third time is when construction has finished. However, for us, I told the client that while Architectural Institutes in China think that the time an architect finishes the drawing is the end of the project, but for me, that is just the beginning of design. We did two or three times as many drawings more than the normal Architecture Institute would do, and did lots of construction experiments as well; and I went to site around fifty times (my assistant went at least a hundred times).

YL: I want to know, what did the workmen (craftsmen) say to you when they were constructing this building – one that is so different from the luxury villas (called ‘Versailles’ or ‘Venice’, they usually construct? Did they have an engagement – a feeling –  for those tiles?

WS: This is a gradual process. Actually, lots of craftsmen roughly know how to do it, but tile-craft is almost a lost art. Besides, they were afraid to try it in the beginning because they’d never done something like it before. For example, they’d never done a wall or façade that brought together concrete with tiles, so we were learning from each other. I learned how to make tiles work from the craftsmen; and they asked me how to unite traditional materials like tiles with modern architecture. And of course we had to have lots of discussions/meetings to evaluate what we were doing – effectively making a new construction standard, because something like this had never been done before.

Narrator: Wang Shu used to describe himself thus: I always think of myself firstly as a member of the Literati; and secondly, it was almost by accident that I’ve learned to do architecture. From this perspective, the way I see things is differently from most other architects.

49-years old, Wang Shu was born in Urumqi, Xinjiang Provence. His father is a performer and his mother is a teacher and librarian. Due to the influence of his parents, Wang Shu became interested in materials, crafts and literature in his childhood and start learning to paint at an early age. But at that time, his parents considered that a career in art would be hard to make a living, so Wang Shu was asked to study sciences. However, Wang Shu insisted, and chose a degree that mixed art and science (engineering): architecture. After some time in university, Wang Shu realized that he’d made the right choice.

For Part 2 (click here)

Translated by Ding Mi 丁觅