Toward a Dissident Architecture?

Wang Shu's Ningbo History Museum. Photo by Iwan Baan, via

The Pritzker Prize, architecture’s would-be Nobel since 1979, generally takes on one of two assignments. The first, as with past winners Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Richard Meier, and Rem Koolhaas, is to confirm the status of long-established starchitects, and thereby also to affirm a certain popular enthusiasm about what architecture is and does. The second, somewhat more polemically, is to direct overdue attention to figures who by choice or by circumstance have mastered some geographical or discursive margin. Among them are past recipients Sverre Fehn, Glen Murcutt, Paolo Mendes de Rocha, and Eduardo Souto de Moura—all of whom adamantly mine seams that are distinct, narrow and deep.

This year’s selection of Wang Shu is something different. Wang is 48 (“young for an architect,” as the citation endearingly puts it) with a smallish body of work, albeit featuring biggish buildings, produced over only about a decade. His practice—Amateur Architecture Studio, founded with his wife Lu Wenyu in 1997—is based in Hangzhou, China, and his education was at the Nanjing Institute of Technology. That’s not the usual transatlantic résumé. Yet Wang’s work, whatever else it may be, does not belong to any margin, but is situated, in form and context, at a 21st-century center of wealth and power.

When a prize like a Nobel or a Pritzker isn’t an invitation to a victory lap or an effort to empower an ongoing mission, it’s an expression of hope, a question mark more than an exclamation point. The question posed by Wang’s Pritzker selection could be articulated like this: If you provide a particularly humane or humanist built environment within the context of occasionally inhumane political or economic conditions, to what extent are you reinforcing or resisting those conditions? Are you offering a tangible alternative or a mere respite? The answers aren’t easy, but the questions are necessary.  “Architecture or Revolution” was the attention-grabbing title of an essay in Corbusier’s epochal Toward an Architecture (1926). The revolution in question was Industrial, but the drift of Corbusier’s argument was that through the correct deployment of high-tech materials and contemporary manufacturing procedures, architects could avert or divert the spiritual or social discord that result from technological change so that “revolution can be avoided.” There’s much that’s slippery in Corbusier’s own framing of the question—elsewhere in the very same essay he evokes “the modern era, gleaming and radiant . . . on the other side of the barricades”—but his phrase reinforces the necessity of asking whether any architecture’s contribution is substantially palliative or transformative.

Wang received his Pritzker medal on May 25th, in a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The complex, built in 1959, has a giganticism (some 1,850,000 square feet) and regionally inflected, stripped-down classicism that make it a commanding but unsubtle setting for the occasion.

That vast building famously took only a year to complete. Size and speed continue to be the story of China’s built environment, as well as the story of its economy as a whole. If architectural production can be measured in cubic feet of reinforced concrete, then more architecture is being manufactured today in China than anywhere else, now or ever. The scale and developmental pace of China’s new cities has diminished and displaced familiar understandings of the cosmopolitan and metropolitan. At a moment of acute global urbanization, when half of the world’s seven billion people (and a projected eight of nine billion by mid-century) live in cities, Wang’s Pritzker calls all architects to their daunting duty, in the coming years, to address this profound change in how we live.

Wang’s own buildings show big thinking and fine detailing. His 2004–07 Ningbo History Museum in Hangzhou especially appears to capture that strange combination of near-geological inevitability and willful felicity (in details like exterior wall planes that fold inward and outward toward the roof, simultaneously stabilizing and destabilizing conventional structural readings) that characterizes masterful design. Wang’s body of work, to the extent it’s comprehensible from the usual published images and descriptions, comes across as thoughtful and beautiful, and not unfamiliar in its techniques and formal vocabularies. There’s a pattern of irregular rectangular perforations proceeding Tetris-like across a façade, independent of interior floor levels, complicating readings of scale and function (as at the Ningbo Museum and the 2007 China Academy of Art Xiangshan Campus, also in Hangzhou), which has also been a signature feature of the work of Steven Holl and Thom Mayne. There’s the pairing of surprisingly dainty cladding and intricately textured masonry with a brooding formal mass (as at the Ningbo Museum), creating a play of lightness against heaviness that has been brought to an airless perfection by Peter Zumthor. There’s the robust blending of glassy, white-wall modernism with vernacular forms and details (as in the 1999 Wenzheng College library in Suzhou), which Alvaro Siza has made an admirable career of.

A significant counterbalance to this participation in modernist idioms, universal solutions and international styles comes from Wang’s distinctive material practice. “I think the material is not just about materials,” Wang recently told the New York Times. “Inside it has the people’s experience [and] memory.” The Xiangshang campus features some two million tiles reclaimed from demolished traditional houses. The Ningbo museum also deploys this kind of spolia, literally and perhaps also figuratively, in its formal evocation of sedimentation and fracture. The Pritzker jury’s citation picked out this material aspect: “[Wang] is able to send several messages on the careful use of resources and respect for tradition and context as well as give a frank appraisal of technology and the quality of construction today, particularly in China.”

One possible message of such careful use of resources is about reconfiguring the usual working relations between architects and builders. When you use old materials, which are irregular in ways that conventionally prescriptive design cannot anticipate, you require a cascade of onsite trial-and-error improvisations, inviting collaboration with the people actually building the project—workers whose knowledge of those materials’ vernacular uses may generate something spectacularly new. The result, in the words of the Pritzker jury’s citation, “sometimes has an element of unpredictability, which in [Wang’s] case gives the buildings a freshness and a spontaneity.” These qualities are remarkable and rare in the relentlessly foreseeable process of architectural construction, especially in the centrally planned development typical of China and increasingly envied and emulated elsewhere.

In the kind of rapid development we see in China, architecture as understood by architects can be seen as a nicety, not a necessity. It may be that, in such a context, Wang’s most instrumental building to date is his least precious: the Vertical Courtyard Apartments in Hangzhou, produced between 2002 and 2007. With an articulated plane that folds up and across the building’s façade and section, and slight alternating rotations to every other floor plate through that section, the building reads more like a stack of house-sized objects than a seamless monolith. In a recent interview with the Architect’s Newspaper, Wang recalled, “I wanted even those people living 30 meters high to still feel like they were living in a small house where they could live around a small courtyard and plant their own trees. From below they can tell people on the ground that ‘those are my trees and that’s my house.’ It provides an identity for people to feel like it’s their own house. It’s more than just blank windows in apartment buildings that can’t separate neighborhoods. It’s a basic right for people.”

What is the relationship between architecture and people’s basic rights? By the standards of human rights held to be universal by those who believe in them, much of what prevails in China falls short. What are the possibilities and responsibilities of design in such a context? We can see, perhaps latently, one possible answer in the language the Pritzker citation uses to describe Wang’s work: “frank,” “collaborative,” “message-sending,” “unpredictable,” “careful,” “spontaneous,” “responsible”—these are all qualities that one would want in, say, the lively and free citizenry of a functional democratic republic.

Whether or not you conclude that Wang’s work embodies such qualities, or prompts them among its users, the jury’s language enables something in addition to the usual ritual of aesthetic appreciation, namely a debate about the possibility of being a dissident architect. Dissidence as an aspect of creative practice would seem to depend on at least two qualities, unpredictability and mobility, that are beyond architecture’s usual abilities. Buildings can be unmade, but not made, overnight. They require elaborate representation before they actually exist, complicating the elements of surprise with which the powerless can perplex the powerful. Buildings cannot be produced in secrecy and then displaced to some freer setting in which they might be more instrumental. They require infrastructure (and patronage). And yet, conversely, they are themselves a kind of necessary infrastructure: unlike other media in which dissident practitioners might work, the built environment has a peculiar immunity to censorship. Regardless of how much Architecture there is to be found in them, you can’t stop buildings: it’s as if people actually needed to live inside movies or poems. And if you believe that the built environment is capable of influencing the events it witnesses, then small interventions in the characteristics of those inevitable buildings, or one offbeat building at the scale of an entire city’s rhythm, can have widespread and uncannily influential effects downstream.

One of the vital contributions of the notable architect (and longtime Pritzker candidate) Peter Eisenman, informed by his conception of the architect as a public intellectual, is the notion of a critical practice. In Eisenman’s case, that intense criticality has been mostly internal to architectural discourse and production, expressed in formal raptures and ruptures (as in a famous early house that expressed its own Cartesian matrix and conceptual syntax as a series of actual physical incisions through its walls and floors, even straight down the middle of the master bedroom). What would constitute an architecture whose cultural or social, economic or political criticality goes beyond intricate and intimate self-reference? In singling out the work of Wang Shu, the Pritzker jury may have started a conversation about what, within any architectural practice, would materialize such an ambition.

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