It has been won by the likes of Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, and now Wang Shu’s name can be added to the list as the first Chinese architect to be awarded the prestigious 2012 Pritzker prize, seen as the Nobel prize for architecture.
The decision to award him the prize acknowledges “the role that China will play in the development of architectural ideals”, said Thomas Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the 0,000 (£60,000) prize.
The jury praised the importance of Wang’s work in a country that is modernising and urbanising at top speed.
“As an architect, everyone dreams about the prize … I’m very happy for him,” said his wife Lu Wenyu. They run a joint practice, Amateur Architects, founded in 1997. Wang is in the US and has declined media interviews as he is busy with lectures.
Past Pritzker winners include American Frank Gehry and many of the big names in European architecture who have created modern Beijing landmarks; Rem Koolhaas, designer of CCTV’s headquarters, and Swiss team Herzog and de Meuron’s Olympic Stadium.
Last year Wang was awarded the Gold Medal by France’s Academy of Architecture.
Unusually for an internationally decorated architect, Wang’s five major projects are all in China, many in his home region of Zhejiang near Shanghai. They include three college campuses and the Ningbo History Museum, and his work typically mixes modern design with traditional material.
China’s rapid urbanisation makes the issue of “the proper relation of present to past … particularly timely”, said jury chairman Lord Palumbo.
In 2011, China became a majority urban country for the first time, as farmers have migrated for work, with rapid urbanisation producing megacities such as Chongqing (population 32 million) and vast urban-industrial sprawls through the factory belts of the Pearl river and Yangzte delta.
Much of this new building is mediocre, with public buildings often emphasising giganticism and grandeur rather than style.
The jury praised Wang’s work as “exemplary in its strong sense of cultural continuity and reinvigorated tradition”.
Wang reworks Chinese styles with recycled materials; 2m tiles from demolished traditional houses were used in the China Academy of Art’s Xiangshan campus, in Hangzhou.
A library at Suzhou University’s Wenzhang Campus is a cluster of low cubes sunk half underground to reflect feng shui traditions, which oppose high buildings that block energy between mountains and water.
Born in 1963, Wang graduated from Nanjing Institute of Technology. His first job was to research building restoration and he worked with craftsmen for 10 years to gain a feeling for materials. He tries to recover what he has called the “handicraft aspect” of building design, in contrast to “professionalised, soulless architecture, as practised today”.
Wang is the first Chinese citizen to win the prize. In 1983 it went to Chinese-American immigrant IM Pei, who designed the Louvre Pyramid.
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