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Wang Shu: A Chinese champion of the small wins big

2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Wang Shu in a handout image from the Hyatt Foundation.

Zhu Chenzhou

Can the poetic architect Wang Shu change the course of China's headlong race to modernize? Not much can derail the force of China – not even America. But now that Wang has won the world's most prestigious award in his field, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, his architecture, famous for its attention to the environment and its consideration of traditional craftsmanship, could provide a powerful counterpoint to his country's history-obliterating urbanization.

Wang, 48, based in Hangzhou, is the first Chinese architect living and working in China to be awarded the $100,000 prize, which typically favours the design stars of Europe and North America. That gives him instant credibility on the world stage. If he plays the valuable cards handed to him by the Pritzker, it could amplify his message. Wang worked as a builder for almost a decade after he graduated with a master's degree in architecture to absorb the knowledge of traditional craftsmen. His four-person firm, Amateur Architecture Studio, is so named to evoke the notion of the amateur as someone who engages in a task for pleasure rather than for financial gain. He designs small-scale homes for people, rather than buildings for users, and favours handicraft over technology and the imperfect quality of the human hand over formulaic development.

Wise, simple truths radiate from Wang's work. He designed a series of pavilions in 1999-2000 for the Library of Wenzheng College at Suzhou University and set them partly underground, partly surrounded by water, to offset high buildings that blocked energy between the nearby mountains and a lake. "My purpose was to make people aware that they live between mountains and water," Wang has written, also saying, "The pavilion-like building in the water – the poetry and philosophy reading room of the library – is, from the Chinese literati point of view, in a position where man and nature are balanced."

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Together with his studio partner and wife, architect Lu Wenyu, Wang has been inspired by China's ancient history of embracing water and hills as a single harmonious design. Architecture must enhance – not overwhelm – that landscape poetry.

To honour collective memory, Wang salvaged stones and roof tiles from architecture obliterated to make way for the march of progress, then reused them in his NingBo History Museum (2008). "If the building is like the body, the materials for the exterior and interior walls are like skin and hair," he said in a lecture at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, where he taught as a visiting professor last year. (Back home, he is a professor and head of the architecture school at the China Academy of Art.)

Wang's aim is always to recycle materials and waste nothing, as is the village custom. (He also prefers to design with pencil rather than computers.) His four-year-old History Museum resembles an ancient fortress of patched-together dreams; some 40 different kinds of brick from destroyed villages nearby were used to construct its 24-metre-high walls. Its windows are a random pattern of deep punctures that look like hollow eyes. "Sometimes, I still have some hope about the future, especially when I work with craftsmen. They can't see large-scale walls. They just see small details," said Wang during his nearly two-hour Harvard lecture. "I find that they can understand. They can create."

Can China blend globalization with traditional approaches to architecture? Not if urbanization is allowed to continue apace. Wang estimates that about 90 per cent of the country's built history has been recently destroyed.

Though he's an outlier in China – he designs project mostly for his native city southwest of Shanghai – Wang is gaining an international reputation. In 2010, he received a special mention at the Venice Architecture Biennale and, in 2011, he won the French Architecture Academy's Gold Medal. He's hardly a starchitect like Norman Foster or Frank Gehry – both recipients of the Pritzker – but his experimental work and outspoken advocacy of meaningful, slowed-down architecture obviously resonated with the Pritzker jury when they began examining his small but astounding body of work.

The fast-tracking of epic-scaled architecture in cities with exploding populations has not been applauded by Pritzker Prize jurors. Along with Wang, a few other architects who practise the art of architecture rather than its manufacture have been honoured with the big award, including last year's recipient from Portugal, Eduardo Souto de Moura, and, in previous years, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and Australian Glenn Murcutt. The ceremony for the 2012 prize will take place in Beijing on May 25. That's when Wang will speak on the proverbial world stage. China should listen up – that is, if it can hear his message over the roar of the bulldozers.

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