Last December I went to Hong Kong to attend the 2012 International Conference on East Asian Architectural Culture. While I am not an expert in architecture or patrimony, my research necessarily deals with such issues in the process of locating contemporary ruins in China. Indeed, massive programs of urban renewal have turned demolition and rubble into a too-familiar landscape since the reforms started back in the 80s. In turn, many artists and filmmakers have used demolition as inspiration and theme of their works.
I went to Hong Kong to argue that many of these works are not merely laments for what is lost, or celebrations of the aesthetic beauty of ruins and rubble, but rather an active proposal for recycling, both of the gross materiality of waste and rubble, as well as of many cultural and symbolic elements related with debris and fallen stones.
My presentation, and those of many others discussing contemporary architecture, touched upon the architect Wang Shu (Amateur Architecture) and Liu Jiakun, the second name in a cohort practising what was called ‘avant-garde architecture’ (Chau Hing-wah, University of Melbourne), ‘thick realism’ (Qing Feng, Tsinghua University), and ‘progressive architecture’ (myself).
In a way, it was to be expected, being Wang the 2012’s Pritzker awardee, but I was curious to see how he was received in Asia. Somebody had told me before that it felt cold in some of his building at the Xiangshan Campus (thus pointing to a possible bluff). Moreover, it is common to see how Western audiences and awards tend to concentrate in, and celebrate, peripheral or controversial elements when it relates to China.
I wondered to what extent the award was received as a genuine recognition of his work, or as (yet another) way to comment on, and critizise, Chinese politics. The jury of the award subtly made reference to the criticism in Wang Shu’s work, when it stated that “[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.” In Hong Kong, if one has to judge from the presentations that discussed his buildings, I found a general appraisal of his reutilization of materials and techniques, exemplified by the technique called wa pan qiang (瓦爿牆), a centuries-old folk way to reutilize construction materials from demolished or abandoned buildings when erecting new walls, which Wang materialized in his Ningbo Museum of Art.
My presentation focused on the dilemma of contemporary architecture posited by Paul Ricoeur as that of “how to become modern and return to sources.”1 I noted how architectual problems of style, form, and citation have been addressed by a number of Chinese architects, who have looked at vernacular forms as source of inspiration. See how the Shanghai Museum (arch. Xing Tonghe) takes its shape from a ancient ceremonial vessel called ding, or how the folk tulou typology have been reappropriated for modern apartment compounds.
Yet I believe what Wang Shu has done is markedly different from the formalism of these other examples, in that his work is concerned with experience, memory, and sustainability. Whether learning from the equilibrium between water and mountains that articulated traditional Chinese gardens to hide underwater part of the Wencheng Library, or trying to convey the atmosphere, vistas and deambulations from ancient Chinese painting in his famous Xiangshan Campus, Wang Shu recovers materials, construction techniques, and uses of space (as in the renovation project for Hangzhou’s Zhongshan Lu).
Instead of avoiding the dilemas between preservation and the actualization of tradition, Wang Shu revives its creative potential. In his words, “If you keep tradition unchanged, it will die. If you simply copy tradition, it will also die. There has to be creative input. I think that you can keep tradition alive in this world by combining traditional principles and modern techniques.”(2)