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China's Wang Shu: From builder to Pritzker-winning architect

By Wang Shu, Special to CNN
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Thu October 25, 2012
  • In 2012 Wang Shu became the first Chinese citizen to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize
  • The 48-year-old's practice is based in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province
  • Pritzker Prize is an annual $100,000 award that honors a living architect
  • Wang spent 10 years working with Chinese craftsmen to perfect his art

Editor's note: Wang Shu became the first Chinese architect to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize earlier this year. The 48-year-old founded his practice, Amateur Architecture Studio, in 1997 in Hangzhou with his wife, Lu Wenyu. His buildings include Ningbo History Museum and the Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art.

Hangzhou, China (CNN) -- Now in modern China all the constructions have become modern, everywhere is concrete and concrete in China means cheap.

But my way is thinking about how I can use the concrete and the traditional ways so that they can coexist.

It is very difficult now in China because there have been so many changes, the construction system has changed, it is almost all like the Western system now and the materials used have changed. So now, we talk about how to design a new Chinese architecture, but it is very difficult because tradition has stopped, philosophy has stopped and the Chinese value system has stopped -- everything is different.

For example, if you look at Chinese traditional buildings, you will find they are not just about the solid structure. They have many outside spaces inside the buildings as people want to live with fresh air, trees, flowers and water together. We use the courtyard house in many different places: In homes, shops, factories, office buildings, schools, jails, everything.

If you really want to understand traditional Chinese architecture you should really know the craftsman's work
Wang Shu, architect

Going into Chinese buildings you can directly feel the difference between outside and inside. When you sit outside, you are in a very closed world; you wear a suit. When you go inside, everything is very delicate and there are very small things -- you can feel everything is warmer and more peaceful. The wooden structure is like your inner clothes so it is very clear -- outside and inside.

In traditional Chinese architecture they use wood and not very good wood -- simple, cheap wood. Maybe the building will just stay up for 50 years and then it will collapse. It's not permanent. It is very similar to process of nature. I like this very much.

Some buildings, they rebuild and recycle, again and again and again. And finally you will find maybe just 10% of the elements come from 1,500 years ago and the other elements are new. It repeats, repeats, rebuilds, rebuilds, again and again and again. It is as though the building is alive.

In Hangzhou we have a traditional pagoda. When I go in this pagoda, suddenly I understand some things. For example, it is huge, but if you see it from a distant place, on some special day when the sun is at different angles, you will find that this pagoda just disappears -- it totally blends into the mountains so you can't see it. It is then that I suddenly understand how I can design big modern buildings using the traditional ways, how buildings can disappear in the landscape.

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In China the most important thing is nature. It is not human beings, it is not architecture -- it is nature. So that is why I like Chinese traditional architecture. It means a philosophy and a value system. It is about how people can live together with nature.

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China has a long history of 5,000 years, so for a long time people have understood the meaning of the truth of life. For example, you go into the cities, you earn a big money, you become a powerful government official -- but that is not the most important thing for Chinese people. The most important thing for the Chinese is ... being beautiful about life, living in some peaceful place with trees, water and your family together.

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If you are an artist you only have to keep your passion alive for maybe three days or one month. But for the architect, your assistant, your client, the craftsmen and the construction company -- everybody is connected to your project. You have to keep the passion alive for five years, right to the very end. You become like a leader and everyone should be able to feel your spirit and passion.

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When I design new buildings in a new place, I go there not just to see the site. I go to all the countryside around and see more than 10 or 20 villages. I take many photos, shoot movies and do some drawings. I read books about the area ... then gradually something emerges.

In traditional Chinese architecture they use wood and not very good wood ... maybe the building will just stay up for 50 years
Wang Shu, architect

If you really want to understand traditional Chinese architecture you should really know the craftsman's work because in China for a long time we did not have architecture theory or history, we did not have architects -- we only had craftsmen so the secret was just in the craftsman's hands. Throughout the 1990s, I didn't have any formal jobs. I just worked with craftsmen together for 10 years. I wanted to forget everything I had learned in the architecture school.

The biggest problem for China now is not about the economy -- it is about the fact that people have lost confidence in their culture.

Winning the Pritzker Prize has given people more confidence to like my work.

Architecture has become too abstract ... (architects) are floating in the air and are not rooted in the ground. I do something that is directly rooted in the ground. I think it is more important.

I learned many things from the traditional way but every single one of my works is in the city so I think the next step I will go back ... and do something in the countryside.

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