Parsing the Wisdom of Wang Shu at Cooper Union

The spirit of Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu‘s lecture at the Great Hall of Cooper Union last night can be summarized by a single phrase, one projected behind him as he spoke: “The memory starts from the thinking of the stuff on hand and the feeling of doing the stuff.”

A very high quality photo take by yours truly

The slide that said it all

As he took the lectern last night, Wang apologized for the quality of his English, but insisted on speaking on his own behalf. As in the quote above, the grammar and the word choice may have muddled the delivery of his lecture (organized by the Architectural League of New York), but in the context of his photographs and anecdotes, they both expressed volumes about his vision and approach. After graciously addressing wife and Amateur Architecture Studio co-founder Lu Wenyu in the audience (Pritzker wives being a hot topic in architecture lately), he spoke of his 2012 Tile Theater in Berlin. He described its 60,000 Chinese roof tiles, recycled from his 2006 installation at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, as having a “memory of Venice”  that they carried to Berlin. He shared the story of a woman whose house had been recently demolished going to his Ningbo Museum four times in three months because of the familiarity of its tiles (and it made him very happy to hear it).

He showed his hand-drawn preliminary sketches of his buildings. He also showed photographs of his buildings next to distantly similar 1,000-year-old Chinese landscape drawings. He described how essential it is for him to be physically present on-site, where in an hour he typically smokes “20 cigarettes” and answers “100 questions” about the construction itself. As an assistant queued his PowerPoint presentation, the architect said that he didn’t know how to use a computer. (The audience laughed, but it may be at least partly true.) In front of a photograph of the remains of a demolished home, he questioned the progress of urbanization. “Who is destroying Chinese culture?” he asked, dismissing accusations that Americans or other foreigners are to blame.

Wang is well known for recycling materials culled from demolished traditional Chinese homes; his Pritzker Jury Citation lauds the practice as “respect for tradition and context” as well as “a frank appraisal of technology and the quality of construction” in modern China. His hands-on approach that favors drawing over parametetrics and consistent references to the past appear to be the actions of a Luddite. But what he expressed last night, despite the language barriers, is that his practice is driven by his belief in the transport of memory through objects via physical contact, and a fascination not with the tradition itself, but tradition’s relationship to the contemporary.

His practice goes against the driving trends in Chinese building: copy-and-pasting and unmitigated experimentation. He casts doubt on the idea that urbanization is the road to the future, or that flashy gimmicks are the key to creating iconic buildings or a contemporary architectural identity for China. His lecture, in short, delivered the same idea highlighted by the Pritzker Jury Citation — “The question of the proper relation of present to past 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” — but revealed the humanity, sentiment, and care behind it.

— Janelle Zara