Wang Shu interview (part 2 of 2)

Wang Shu: “if you listen carefully, you will find out that your clients have no idea what they are talking about

Translated by Ding Mi 丁觅 

Programme: “YANG LAN – ONE-ON-ONE‘ – Wang Shu: The Reflection of Architecture
Originally broadcast on Chinese Network Television [CNTV]

PART 1: click here
PART 2 (of a 2-part series) Watch the original Chinese language video here (click image):

Wang Shu_screen grabNarrator:
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.

Yang: You always say you are literati at first and then an architect. Or in another way, architects need to have some perceptions of Philosophy and Morals. If we look at our architecture school education and training, are we getting there?

Wang: Of course not. However, it’s not just a problem in China because it ites in with the development of history and culture. For example, ‘modern architecture’ is an abstract concept which allows for it to mean different things at different times. Before World War II – in Europe – there were lots of discussions about ideology and morals. It was a discussion about architecture directly related to social transformation. However, after the war, in America, all the discussions about morality stopped and it became simply a discussion about ‘style’. Therefore, ‘modern architecture’ lost it’s soul after it went to America… and unfortunately, China learned about ‘modern architecture’ from America. So this new tradition about ‘modern architecture’ – and architecture without a soul – is how it manifests itself in China.

Yang: Is it biased in its emphasis on the function of architecture?

Wang: It’s not only about function, it is its combination with the market economy?

In 1987, as a Second-year student, Wang Shu wrote an article about a crisis in Chinese architecture and suggested that it was effectively being crushed. It criticized Chinese modern architecture and caused a big discussion between teachers and students.

Wang: I remember one authority in our department who took me to one side to have a talk with me. He give me three comments. Fe said, firstly, you read too many books you are not suppose to read; secondly, you think about too many things that you shouldn’t consider; and thirdly, you say too many things that you are not suppose to say.

Yang: That’s very incisive. Presumably, that’s why you remember him today. You were quite rebel at that time, wern’t you? You even had a long hair?

Wang: Yes, I still remember one of my teachers said. He said: lots of student do not understand what ‘post-modern’ means, but if you look at Wang Shu, you will understand. Because I had a long hair, dressed in grey clothes and wore a red star, like in the Red Army. It was a mixture of extreme modernism and extreme traditionalism

Yang: You were ahead of time in tat respect because it is only in the late 90s that modern art looked to use the red star. Remind me, what was the name of your Master’s Thesis essay?

Wang:The House of the Dead

Yang: Meaning what, exactly?

Wang: It comes from Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name.

Yang: So how did your thesis presentation go?

Wang: The room in which I did my thesis presentation was very crowded. When I was a student, every time when I had a chance to present something, the room was always very crowded.

Yang: What is the most important thing you wanted to say in that essay?

Wang: Well. ‘The House of the Dead‘ was not talking about a Chinese problem particularly, but it criticized modern architecture in general. It criticized and analyzed the type of fanatical modern architecture that people advocated at that time. Afterwards, lots of people said ‘The House of Dead’ will stand as a prediction. It basically predicted what has actually happened in Chinese architecture over the last 20 years.

Yang: So you have criticized modern architecture and the development of Chinese architecture. You are obviously a Critic but, by the way, did you pass your thesis presentation?

Wang: Yes, I did. Even though judges had a very fierce discussion, I was unanimously approved.

Yang: So did you get the Masters’ degree title at that point?

Wang: No I didn’t. Because academic judges had a meeting afterwards and I didn’t get that award.

Yang: Why?

Wang: Because at that time in my life, I was very conceited and so I finished the essay in a very short time. Actually I has been thinking about this subject for three or four years, but I finished the essay in only 15 days. And I wrote the start and finish dates on the essay. They think I didn’t spend much time on the essay.

Yang: So you only have a Bachelor degree?

Wang: Yes, but with Masters’ experience.

Yang: Yes, you may have ‘Masters’ experience’, but you don’t have Masters’ title, do you?

Wang: I don’t have Masters’ title, that’s true. Some people told me that I could try again, but I had the feeling that I wouldn’t get it. Some people told me: just make some changes and it would be OK. But I said, as far as I know, Jean-Paul Sartre didn’t receive the Nobel Prize even though they offered it to him three times.

Yang: You are so conceited! So, as for a young man who had so many reflections on, and criticisms of, Chinese architecture and architectural education, when you did the project for Xiangshang campus and became the Head of Architecture at the China Academy of Art, what did you want to change the most?

Wang: Actually, I think the change should be done on the foundation level of education. Actually, I needed to change myself first before trying to change my students. So I spent around 10 years changing myself after the 90s.

Wang Shu was honored with Gold medal from the French Academy of Architecture in 2011. It was the first time that a Chinese architect had won this international architecture prize. In the meantime, Wang Shu was asked to give the post-graduate ‘Kenzo Tange’ lecture in Harvard University’s School of Architecture. Many people in architecture thought that it wouldn’t take long for him to be honored with Pritzker prize after he had built up such a good reputation across the world. Amongst his most representative works, Xiangshang campus is one that is most talked about… and his Ningbo Museum (photo: below).ningbo

Yang: When you were planning your ideal architecture school and were given more space and freedom to do it, what were your expectations for this campus and for the influence that this campus would have on your students?

Wang: Actually, architecture has significant influence on human beings. When you live in a place, the environment and the atmosphere has a passive influence on you. Therefore, I want to create the ideal situation in which nature comes first and architecture comes second. In this way, it is a little bit like a traditional Chinese institute. Another comparison is to view the discussions between students and teachers like Plato’s College – a place of academic freedom. It is not a place where supreme authority is exercised and so even thought it may feel a little be scattered, it has its logic to it. In this case, lots of scholars and students can have a (relaxed) conversation and this kind of conversation is always surrounded by architecture and nature.

ling_yin_templeWhen this project was being considered for approval, I did a photomontage of The Feilai Feng grottoes in Lingyin Temple (pictured left) and I said, when you ask me what is college is, this is what I think… in Asia at least. In this natural environment, Buddha is the teacher and as we look at them, we become the students. You can see some spare spaces around the Buddha, actually he is waiting for his student to sit around him and have conversations between each other.

Yang: Yes, there is usually a spare space in front of them.

Wang: Yes, and there are other symbolic meanings there, reflecting on the process of knowing the world.

Yang: So you want the whole arrangement of your college environment to become a free space of imagination, learning and understanding.

Wang: Of course you need aesthetics. Actually, China is a country that has a very long tradition of scenery painting. It is intrinsic to Chinese people. Architecture and scenery are combined with each other and you cannot break them apart. Architecture is scenery; scenery is a part of architecture. It’s dialectical.

Wang Shu is the Head of the School of Architecture at the China Academy of Art and the visiting professor for Harvard’s postgraduate school. The youngster who was regarded as a post-modern man by his teachers, participated in some major architectural projects soon after he graduated. But most of time, he led a reclusive life in Hangzhou. Spending lots of time with architectural craftsman, participating in design and research, studying architectural skills. He lived this kind of reclusive life for ten years.

Wang: I spent ten years looking for something.

Yang: How did you look for it?

Wang: I moved around a lot during this time. I lived in Hangzhou but I moved around four or five times to these kind of places. I just wanted to live in that kind of environment. Once, I lived in a place that really moved me. Opposite my home was a two-storey apartment, built during Republic of China days. It’s a very simple building with a double-pitched roof but in order to satisfy the needs of those living there, the occupants erected small kitchens or a small shed and it made the building much more rich.

Yang: Was it also a mess?

Wang: Yes, it was a mess but it had an atheistic quality – it’s a mess but it’s a beautiful mess. If you look at it in a different way, you will feel its beauty (Modern architecture ‘s bling is actually very boring). There was a time when the city tried to demolish the squatter settlements, the illegal buildings, and overnight everything outside that building was taken away. I have described that situation as resulting in a chicken without its feathers.

But I was looked back on it the following year and the things that were taken away have gradually come back. They didn’t come back in exactly the same way, but if we see it as a language, it is in the same language. I realized that it contains “architecture”. Even ordinary people know this: as long as you understand this kind of language, you can build similar things again and again. But why don’t architects understand this kind of language and why can’t our architecture schools train architects to know this kind of language?

Yang: .. And seven years passed?

Wang: Yes. Of course I did some other things as well but I can only do some small projects during that time, like renovations of old buildings, for example. But this is actually great, because you can learn more about material this way… and architecture students never study materials.

Yang: But the building that you renovated during this time often followed with construction finished but demolished already in your design list (in your work list? Its like the after the name of the project, there will be a statement saying that this project once was built but was demolish later). Why they are demolished? The client doesn’t like it?

Wang: No, the renovation I did is all in the old buildings. With they demolish the building, the work I did are demolished as well, this is what the process likes.

Yang: What is your feeling when you saw the building that you put so much time and energy into, being demolished?

Wang: Of course, I felt a little bit sad in the beginning, but I am a very unconventional person and I know that this is how it history works. Sometimes it’s very cruel, but this is how it goes.

Wang Shu’s wife is also an architect. They both founded an architectural studio in 1997 with some friends. In his long reclusive period, the most significant motivation for him to keep going was the support and understanding of his wife. In 2010, Wang Shu and his wife were both honored with the Erich Schelling Architecture Award. So, when he then subsequently honored with the Pritzker Prize, the first reaction (after delight) is, why isn’t he and his wife being honored together?

Wang: Actually, our work is mixed together and you cannot separate them. But I do more drawings, and she is in charge of the operational side of things. Creativity is very important, but the most important thing – in China right now – is how to operate creatively. The first reaction of most people knowing what I did is; “impossible!” But the impossible became possible for me?

Yang: In the meantime, your wife ensured that your projects came into being?

Wang: Yes. She is very important. For example, there are some people who might say something insane during the discussion of a project. According to my characteristic, I probably will splash a glass of water to his/her face directly, or just pound the table and leave. But she taught me to be patient and to become a listener. Most importantly, she has a motto, humbly accept other people’s opinion, but be firm to your own opinion.

Yang: She makes your appear soft, but you still have a hard inside.

Wang: It’s very important to be diplomatic when you communicate with others, but actually, lots of people have no idea what they are talking about. You will find that a lot of architects are afraid to hear their client suggest changes to a project – but if you listen carefully, you will find out that your clients have no idea what they are talking about. Many architects – especially in China – constrain themselves and become very servile.

Yang: Will Chinese architects become more confident in this day and age?

Wang: Well this confidence has to reflect a wisdom; it needs to reflect rationality. There is no point in being confident without reason.

Yang: You said that your wife is your mentor, is that a little toadying?

Wang: No, it’s from the heart.

Yang: Can you speak about this a little more?

Wang: When I become too philosophical, she is always very emotional and it influences me a lot.

Yang: She does things you disdain to do?

Wang: Yes. But you still need to be in touch with society. When I finished my reclusive life, I needed to go back to society. Architects, of all people, need to be in touch with society. And I made my credo: I said, architectural practice definitely is a modern art activity, because modern art activities need to be in touch with society. Architecture is not removed from society, like the study of the Classics, for instance.

Yang: Architecture needs to relate to politics and the economy.

Wang: Yes. You need to face architecture, you cannot escape from it. There may be changes that you want to make, things that you want to explore, and you will get into trouble as well because of it. Actually it needs a great deal of wisdom to operate it; to solve every problem.

Yang: At the beginning, we asked the question about why Wang Shu has drawn so much attention – and I think we have the answer.

The rapid development of urbanization in China has reached a certain level. On one hand, our traditional architecture, society and lifestyle is disappearing. On the other hand, it has been replaced by massive repetitive and imitative Western ‘modern architecture’. Probably it’s not only architects, but all of us who should ask, what kind of city do we want and what kind of lifestyle we should lead?


Translated by Ding Mi 丁觅 [Liverpool University]