I got the opportunity to visit one of Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu’s buildings in Hangzhou. Really more than a building, this large complex houses the College of Art and Architecture of which he is the dean. What an opportunity to both design a massive new multi-building campus including housing from scratch and then lead the school!
The audacity and scale seemed emblematic of contemporary China. Wang Shu embraced this challenge and used it to explore a new fusion of architectural ideas from western and Chinese traditions. After traveling through a number of cities, towns, and villages in China and seeing the difficulty of this fusion, it was inspiring to see this approach so directly addressed. In earlier posts about authenticity, it often seems like an either/or proposition: the new glass mall or the fake pagoda or the concrete housing block perched uncomfortably in the center of this dialectic.
Western architects practicing in China seem to primarily provide approaches that are overtly expressive or flamboyant or direct translations of buildings we know in the West. There is often very little direct engagement with the cultural context - the buildings could be in Dubai, New York, or Barcelona. Except maybe it looks like a dragon.
The Hangzhou Art and Architecture Building is so intensely Chinese - it would be out of place anywhere else. It is also directly engaged with the site, framing views and embracing the unique topographic and climatic conditions. But finally, it is also a profoundly contemporary building that is both inventive and reflective of recent Western innovations.
In an earlier post, I wrote of visiting the Carpenter Center of Visual Arts at Harvard by Le Corbusier, his only American building. In that building (and so many others) he explores the ideas of movement in space - the architectural promenade. This building expands on that idea to create architecture as movement and unfolding experience. And material. And culture. And landscape.
The most distinctive feature is the walkways that wrap the outside of each of the buildings. They allow movement independent of the buildings, a walk-by that creates selective engagement with the spaces within. They provide a baseline from which all experience emerges. One can then move into and through the buildings and get lost a bit or continue to go around them. Everything is connected through bridges to ensure the continuity of this experience. Numerous surprises are encountered: courtyards intriguing elements, waterways, amphitheater nooks, a textural brick wall made of reu-used materials ... These make this experience an endless process of discovery.
I have not seen as inventive a building in a while. It provides a new perspective on culture, but also about modernity, craft, and experience. This is about all you can ask of a new building!