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Interview with Chinese Architect and First Chinese Winner of the Pritzker Prize, Wang Shu

Aired May 11, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



STAN GRANT, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CNN INTERNATIONAL: (voiceover): Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, I. M. Pei - the names behind some of the world's most recognizable buildings. All former Pritzker Prize winners.

Now, the newest addition to the list, Wang Shu. The first Chinese citizen to be awarded architecture's biggest accolade. Based in Eastern China, Wang and his wife, Lu Wenyu, are the driving forces behind their independent architecture firm, founded 15 years ago.

Now, they are responsible for some 12 projects in the country, from colleges to librararies, to museums. His work, though, is far from reflective of the nation's race to modernize. The former craftsman creates structures that compliment their natural surroundings, recycling pieces of demolished buildings, while embracing elements of traditional Chinese design.

This week, on "Talk Asia", we travel to the Chinese city of Hangzhou, to meet the master architect in his studio and find out how a childhood journey inspired his creations today.


GRANT: Wang Shu, thank you very much for speaking to us. I want to ask you, first of all, about winning the Pritzker Prize. When did you hear that news?

WANG SHU, ARCHITECT: When I heard this news, I am asleep.


SHU: Yes.

GRANT: Someone woke you up with the telephone?

SHU: Yes. It's because I - that time I'm in the United States, in Los Angeles, because (UNCLEAR). But it's the day before I have the party with some friend there. I drink many wines, so.

GRANT: The celebration is supposed to come after, not before.

SHU: Yes, yes, yes.

GRANT: So, when you heard the news, how did you feel?

SHU: The feeling is - of course it's excited, but another side thinks "It's not true. It's true?"

GRANT: You couldn't believe it?

SHU: Yes. Because, you know, in China is where specialize (ph) just 10 years before. This means before the 2000. In this society, for the common people, almost don't know what's meaning about architecture. What meaning about architects. So it's just 10 years later, some architects - Chinese architect - they win the Pritzker Prize, you know. It's not just about me. I think it's really - it's true for so many Chinese architects.

GRANT: For the country?

SHU: Yes. For the country, they built it. It's true. It's like the dream.

GRANT: How has it changed your life? Do you see you see your life before the Pritzker Prize and after the Pritzker Prize?

SHU: A little bit change. Yes. No generalist -


GRANT: People me annoying you?

SHU: And another type because maybe my face on the many papers on the TV. So many common people, now, they know me. They say, "Oh, you are". Yes. Something like that.

GRANT: I was talking to your wife, and she said that you are like a rock star now. You have many fans.

SHU: Yes, yes. But it's good for Chinese architects - I think it's good. But originally, the architect in Chinese society is not so high position.

GRANT: Well, let's talk about that. The importance of architecture in China, because we know that China has an amazing tradition.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: Beautiful buildings. Beautiful things - great art. Do you feel as though there was a period where that was lost?

SHU: I think, because the system, it had the big chance. Because originally, traditional system - there's no architects - China's traditional system. It's - I call it a special structure. It's a scholar, craftsmen directly working together. No architect. This means we build so many buildings - we build so many huge cities, but almost no architects.

GRANT: So, just buildings?

SHU: It's just the buildings.

GRANT: No thought?

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: No art?

SHU: Almost.

GRANT: So, you come along, and you decide that you want to revive the traditions.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: What was your thinking behind that?

SHU: When, I started architecture in the university, I find what I learned, what my teacher teach me, is no connection to our culture - to our common life. It's just about some abstract thinking about the West and about East and about tradition - about motive. But everything is abstract.

GRANT: So it's just - just put up a building.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: Because you need to fill the space.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: Do you feel that you're fighting a battle to try to reclaim China's soul? China's culture? What it means to be Chinese?

SHU: Traditional culture is means real life. This means you really live in traditional life. Then you can understand others. So, I think I only one thing I can do - I must do this. I change myself first. I change my life first.

GRANT: How did you do that?

SHU: When I am a student - for example, I do many trip in the countryside. I (UNCLEAR) go into the deep mountains - countryside. Usually one trip about three miles.

GRANT: Reconnect?

SHU: Yes. I visit many, many village, traditional cities - that's the real experience. Real feeling to see how people living there. How so many interesting difference in the life. It's very, very important.


GRANT (voiceover): Coming up, we find out about the journey that would inspire a young Wang Shu to dabble in design.

GRANT: You were a young boy.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: How old?

SHU: Seven or eight years old.




SHU: First, you can see this wall. We mixed about more than 20 different size materials together.

GRANT: Yes, yes. And when you get close, you can see small brick, larger bricks, different color bricks.

SHU: Yes, yes, yes, yes. So this means many many times experiment. It not means one times you can do that is perfect. We do many experiment on site. We talk and study with the craftsman together. So many time.

GRANT: Do you think, now you've won the Pritzker, that some people are going to copy your work?

SHU: People, they want copy, but it's not easy. It's not just means a form of us or material. It means many experience about experiment. You should build some a special way to do it.

GRANT: And do you feel like - you know, when I talk to you - almost like you were some sort of warrior, you know? You're fighting this fight to preserve and to connect with culture and history. You're really fighting the battle.

SHU: So me, the architecture design is the battle. It's not just -

GRANT: It's a battle?

SHU: Yes, it's the battle.

GRANT: And you're a warrior for this?

SHU: Yes. Because, you know, even in art academy 10 years ago, artist also don't know what's meaning about architecture. About architects. So I really stand many time to exchange - keep exchange ideas. With the plans, with the artist.

GRANT: You know, you could have been a much richer man if you didn't do this.


SHU: Yes, yes.

GRANT: You could be very rich.

SHU: You know.


GRANT: You know, when I look at your building and where we're sitting, here. I'm reminded of something that you said. You don't build buildings. You build houses.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: And this feels like a house. I'm sitting right here.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: And this, the Hangzhou Art Academy that we're in now, is that what you tried to do here? To create a sense of community and belonging and a sense that you are in a house - you're not in a building.

SHU: I want appeal to new way about architecture education. I stuck to here for 20 years. So, finally, it's not just about education. I think the academy means a special community - we're like the family. And the people they discussing, they thinking here. So finally I design the old campus with my many artist friends together. The people, they can share some have radio, some are reading.

GRANT: Interesting you're talking about family, Wang Shu. Because I want to talk about your family. You grew up in Xinjiang?

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: Very far western province.

SHU: It's four thousand kilometers away from here.

GRANT: Yes. And very vast. Very empty.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: What was your childhood like?

SHU: It's very interesting childhood time for me. Because that time is in culture revolution. So the society has a little bit disorder. Some places dangerous. So I have to trips between Xinjiang and Beijing. Beijing is my mother's hometown. So I have the trip between the two cities. So I have a very big contrast between the two different things. One is the Chinese Capitol -

GRANT: So different, yes.

SHU: One is the desert. I live in the desert.

GRANT: And also, at that time, too. The cultural revolution? To go between Beijing and Xinjiang. Wow.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: You're seeing so much change. So much change, not just in the landscape, as you say, but in the people.

SHU: Yes. But another side for me that's important is just that me have the trip. No parents, come with me.

GRANT: You were a young boy. How old?

SHU: Yes. Seven or eight years old? From six, I think.

GRANT: And you're traveling by yourself.

SHU: The first train is at two years old. From two years old to ten years old. That time. Many trips. Then and alone. So I just see the landscape. Have a small paper and a pencil. I began to drawing.

GRANT: That's where you become an architect.

SHU: Yes, yes, yes.

GRANT: In the back of the train.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: Why did you choose architecture?

SHU: So, when I shall go to the university, in China we shall pass the National Exam. I want become artist. I want come to here it's famous. National Art Academy - I want come to here. But my parents, they don't agree. Because that means - artist means -

GRANT: No money.

SHU: No money.


SHU: Yes, yes. Every parents want their child to become engineer, so -

GRANT: Make money, have a successful life.

SHU: Yes, yes, yes. So finally I gave the condition to my parents. OK, I can become engineer, but I won't learn (ph) something - if I can't - it has some art in that. So, finally, they looking for to me, for me, and the family - one day they are happy tell me, "I found something, and they call it architecture".


GRANT: And they went, "What is this?"

SHU: Yes, yes, yes. So many people say, "You are crazy. What meaning about architect? You are crazy. I think you become a philosopher or become a writer, become a painter - it's your dream. Why you want become an architect?"

GRANT: One thing that I found really interesting about you is that you didn't go for the big government contracts or the - you decided that you would go and learn from the craftsmen.

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: So, you've done your study. Then you go out and you work as laborer with craftsmen. Why do that?

SHU: So, when I graduate, I want do something different. So I think it's my most important choice, especially in the 1992. That year, for China, is very important years. Den Xiaoping they gave some new reaction about -

GRANT: The new economy, opening up -

SHU: The job about economic development. Many money suddenly emerged in the market.

GRANT: To get riches, glory -

SHU: Yes. The architects are very excited. We conceive of many things. We can get big money. We have many chance. So I just talk to my friend, talk to my wife. I say, "This time, it not belong to me". Because too much money on the market, this means client will be very powerful. So architects no chance, in this time. So I want go back to home, is my position. I go back to home, I go back to the lower layer society to working ways of craftsmen together.


SHU: I don't want become too professional architect. You know, it's the professional architect usually means very boring.

GRANT (voiceover): Up next, Wang Shu explains why being an amateur has given him the edge.




GRANT: So, what we're seeing here, is the guest house that's under construction out at the Art Academy.

SHU: Yes, yes.

GRANT: And what have you designed here?

SHU: Because it's a very narrow site and along the small river and beside hills -

GRANT: So, you're using the environment, again?

SHU: Yes, yes. I use the building - it's very near the environment. Very long, very narrow. And I used many rampers (ph) wall to separate the space. The people, they stand here, can see the vision penetrate to landscape.

GRANT: Oh, OK, so you can see the landscape through the building?

SHU: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

GRANT: It's open.

SHU: Yes, yes.

GRANT: You know what's interesting, here - you don't use a computer.

SHU: Yes, I don't use - just use the pencil.

GRANT: So old-style, right?

SHU: Yes, a pencil. But my pencil is for special - is not just like some (UNCLEAR) - one master sketch.

GRANT: Right.

SHU: Yes. My pencil drawing is very carefully. So you can see, it means delicate matter about calculation - about building the size - the height.

GRANT: Very specific. Yes.

SHU: Yes. Very specific and accurate design. Then my assistant - they use a computer template.

GRANT: Your pencil is better than the computer.

SHU: Yes, yes. Translate the computer to computer drawings.

GRANT: Do you think it makes a difference to the vision you have, using the old technology as well - using a pencil instead of a computer? Does that make you think differently?

SHU: Quite different.

GRANT: Really?

SHU: Quite different. Because when you use the pencil, you really touch something. You really touch your body feelings.

GRANT: Connected?

SHU: Yes, you connected. You do confirm (ph). You stand there and every drawing, every line, it has some special meaning. But a computer is different.


GRANT: You don't do this on your own. You have a very good partner who's very close to you. Your own wife.

SHU: Yes, yes.

GRANT: Also an architect. And you have a company together. Tell me how that works and the value of working with someone who you're also married to.

SHU: It's really - my wife is my only partner. In my - I don't call my studio a company - I just call it a studio - amateur architecture studio. My wife is only partner in this studio for me. So she's very important, you know? If a very large scale construction, this means many, many conferencings.

GRANT: And The Amateur Architecture Studio - why the name "Amateur"?

SHU: The direct meaning is I don't want become to professional architects. You know, it's the professional architects usually means very boring.


GRANT: You still want to be like the craftsmen.

SHU: Yes. It means -

GRANT: It means wearing a suit and tie.

SHU: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

GRANT: Going to an office.

SHU: Yes, yes, yes, yes. In China's history, most of great artist - everyone is amateur artist. We are not professional. Is Chinese philosophy. Yes, we do art, but we do think art is most important thing in life. That nature is more important, the tree is more important, the water is more important. Art, then, is art.

GRANT: It's interesting how you use those descriptions there about the water and the trees, because it reminds me of the library in Wenzheng that you designed.

SHU: Yes, yes, yes.

GRANT: Which is using all of those elements, isn't it?

SHUL Yes, yes.

GRANT: Tell me about that.

SHU: Every time I do design, architecture is not most important things. Nature, environment, is more important. So, when I design it, you will see the traditional Chinese painting is very careful. The mountain, trees, that's just a small building there.

GRANT: Yes, yes.

SHU: The building is not most important thing.

GRANT: Or the person?

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: Is not the most important thing?

SHU: It's just the mix - mix in a natural environment.

GRANT: When you look at a building like the library in Nanjing or the Ningbo History Museum - do you have a favorite? Do you look at it and say, "This one means more to me than that one."?

SHU: Of course. Some trees is beautiful, it's more easy. But, for example, when I designed the museum in Ningbo - Ningbo History Museum -- this means relative culture. When I go to there and see almost everything disappeared - demolished. Then they want me design this museum here.

GRANT: And you're thinking, "I don't want to do this".

SHU: So how to design it? No context (ph) remains. No surroundings. It means you build something on the moon.

GRANT: It felt like an alien landscape to you?

SHU: Yes. So finally I think I should do something. I appeal to some very strong reason - like a tree they can plant here - they have a root go into the ground. So I build some landscape system - they can keep (ph) a lift (ph) here. For me, there's more important things.

GRANT: And Ningbo, because it was the building that many say, "This was the building that won your Pritzker Prize".

SHU: Yes.

GRANT: Does it mean more to you because of that? In your heart?

SHU: In the very beginning, some people, they don't like my designs. Yes. And some my own family (ph) shocked (ph) me. Why? Is it so new, popular, modern, city center, small Manhattan. You use this old, dirty material. Design the new museum.


SHU: What meaning - they ask me, "What meaning?" You say, "What meaning?"

GRANT: What about the future of Chinese architecture? Do you see people - the next generation - being more influenced by the work that you're doing. Or do you see it becoming more the big buildings, the "New Manhattans" that you talk about? How do you think China is going to resolve that conflict?

SHU: It is interesting - in China - when you say more Chinese architects may be influenced by me - it just means maybe a hundred architects (UNCLEAR). Yes. You know.

GRANT: Small number, but big influence.

SHU: Yes, yes. But another side - the China erect the huge train that high speeds on the railway, but the people can't see clear about the direction that China is not like this (ph). This high speed train on the railway. But the people really don't know where is direction.

GRANT: You're all being swept along.

SHU: So, if you want to stop it, it's very difficult. So, I still keep do some experiments - example of what I want to say to other architects and to common Chinese. We should think about different way. Yes, this what I can do.

GRANT: Maybe the lesson is, "Don't get on the train".


SHU: Maybe.

GRANT: For a boy who learned to be an architect sitting on a train, you want to be off the train now.

SHU: Yes. I can feel it now. More and more people they do - really, choice. Don't get on that train.

GRANT: Yes. Don't get on the train. Wang Shu, thank you so much for giving us your time. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

SHU: Thank you. Good person.