Beyond Buildings


Shu Wins and Deserves the Pritzker

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It is a wonderful experience to happen upon great architecture. It is even better when you find it in a relatively obscure location and then find out that others have had the same experience as you. So it was with great pleasure that I heard this last weekend that Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture had won the Pritzker Prize. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but when you see something as good as the China Academy of Arts, the largest collection of buildings Shu has designed, you know it in a profound sense.


When I wrote about this campus on the outskirts of Hangzhou, China, last year, I said that I had come across “something great,” going on to explain that:“It is a heartening sign of how in this big and fast-growing Chinese city it is possible to make architecture that uses the past to define new spaces, that frames community and respects the landscape, that uses old materials in new forms, and that opens up new vistas within its confines.”


Looking back at that experience, and reflecting on the awarding of the Pritzker, I think several things become clear. The first is that the Pritzker jury and mechanism got it right this time. Though some think the award is too focused on the work of well-known architects, or that it sometimes makes strange choices (does anybody remember Gottfried Bohm?), on the whole they have concentrated on architects about whom you can say two things. First, whatever the theories behind their work or the style in which they work, they make buildings that alter—in a good way—our experience of the place they occupy, the function they house, and the way we think about framing our human activities. Second, these awardees influence others through the strength of their work. It helps that the jury actually visits all the buildings they judge, and that it contains several members who are acutely aware of the place the work holds in the architecture ecosystem.


The award to Shu also confirms the rise to maturity of Chinese architecture. I first became aware of his work almost a decade ago, when we starting to collect the architecture of a new generation of Chinese designers for an exhibition at the Netherlands Architecture Institute. We felt that there were architects there who were beginning to mine the country’s own traditions, building methods, and places for inspiration, but with a full awareness of our global culture and economy. Shu was clearly the most talented of this new group. By now, the cohort has grown exponentially, to the point that collecting all the work in one place would probably not be feasible. China is not just a place to dump our architecture or our ideas: it is producing forms and urban ideas that will astound us.


The fact that our curators then found the work, that I could go see the China Academy of Arts, and that the Pritzker did so as well also is a mark of how accessible our world has become. Everything that is being made today is available. It is on the Web, it is all around us, and you can reach it. The idea that there is some cabal of critics and architects creating an artificial star system based in a few cities and schools turns out to be as absurd as any conspiracy theory. We are all part of a worldwide attempt to figure the nature and place of architecture.


The best architecture I have seen lately reuses and reinterprets, rather than pretending to invent new forms out of nothing. Shu makes new buildings out of old tiles and bricks, and mounts traditional roofs on top of concrete grids. His is architecture of hunting and gathering, instead of invention, of evoking and echoing, rather than expressing or building an abstract thing for the ages.


Finally, when you see it, you know it. I like to imagine the jury riding in their little minibus to the site, already debating about whether to give the award to Holl, maybe Ben van Berkel, or some other architect I am not even thinking about, rounding the corner of the campus in suburban Hangzhou, getting out, gazing around, looking at each other, and smiling, knowing that there was no need for further debate. It probably did not happen that way, but, in a way, it did. I think there is little debate: the Pritzker Prize to Wang Shu affirms not only the work of a great architect, but also the possibility and the immediacy of great architecture.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:55 AM Monday, March 05, 2012

    I do agree with many of your comments, especially as it relates to Chinese architects owning their country, and reinterpreting its own culture, own traditions to make beautiful work. There is a timelessness to his work, and craft. However, while people are busy complementing the decision, it is a premature one.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.