In China there has always been tradition for constructing majestic buildings: Palaces, temples, landmarks and of course the great wall. But it was not until the 20th century, when Western building methods were introduced that the concept of “architecture” came to China.
Last year modern Chinese architecture took a big step forward as Wang Shu won the Pritzker award, which is considered the greatest honor you can receive in the field of architecture.
Wang Shu is the first China based recipient of the prestigious award and it’s a symbol of how far Chinese architecture has come.
Wang Shu graduated from Nanjing University and has worked in China ever since. He started his own professional practice, naming it “Amateur Architecture Studio”. The word amateur in this context is interpreted as the dictionary defines it “a person who engages in an activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit”, which shows his deep passion for his work.
All of this made me think of how Chinese architecture has developed throughout time. How the Chinese building masters created their masterpieces and how it has inspired the modern Chinese architecture.
Because most of the ancient architecture was made out of wood, unfortunately a lot of the very oldest exhibits of Chinese architecture are gone, this is mostly due to the decomposition of the wood but also wars and invasions have taken their toll.
One of the most famous testaments to Chinese building mastery is the 600 year old “The Forbidden City”.
It was built during the Ming Dynasty after the Hongwu Emperor moved the capital from Beijing in the north to Nanjing in the south, and ordered that the Yuan palaces be burnt down. When his son Zhu Di became the Yongle Emperor, he moved the capital back to Beijing and construction began in 1406.
It is said that a million workers including 100.000 artisans was working on this majestic complex. The complex is 720.000 m2 and consists of close to a thousand buildings.
The Forbidden City shows us the ancient building masters were very skillful, for example the grand red city wall has a 8,6 meter wide base reducing to 6,66 meter at the top. The angular shape of the wall makes it almost impossible to climb. Another brilliant thing was the material used for the wall. The bricks were made from white lime and glutinous rice while the cement was made from glutinous rice and egg white. These incredible materials make the wall extraordinarily strong.
One of the best preserved ancient Chinese cities is Ping Yao, located in the Shaanxi Provence. More than 300 sites in or near the city of Ping Yao have ancient ruins and preserved Ming- and Qing-style residences displaying the development of Chinese architecture. Close to 4000 houses have been built over many years and display the different building styles used by Chinese building masters over the years. Add to that all the streets and storefronts still largely retain their historical appearance.
Ping Yao has always been very rich because of the huge trading and later banking activity in the town.
The prosperity deriving from this resulted in Ping Yao being endowed over the centuries with many high-qualities, well-built private houses, and these have survived to a large extent.
Because Ping Yao is so well-preserved the urban fabrics show the evolution of architectural styles and town planning in Imperial China over five centuries.
Where Ping Yao shows the traditional building styles of the northern China, the best place to see the traditional buildings of the southern China is the village Hongcun.
Hongcun is arranged in the shape of an ox with the nearby “Leigang Hill” interpreted as the head and the two trees standing on it as horns. The village has been praised by foreign architects as containing some of the best preserved old-time houses and as being one of the most beautiful villages in the world and the carvings are said to be amongst the best of their kind in China.
The village is so beautiful that it has been used in films several times, most prominently the 2000 huge success “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
In recent years the focus of Chinese architecture has been on the western building principles, and with urbanization a lot of skyscrapers have been erected in the major cities by western architects. This has been very healthy for Chinese architecture because it has learned a lot from the western practices, and also a lot of very skillful Chinese architects have graduated from western universities and brought a lot of knowledge back to China which means that today the Chinese universities are able to produce top architects.
Wang Shu gets inspired from all of these traditional Chinese ways of building and combines it with modern architecture to create beautiful buildings and it’s no coincidence that he is the first Chinese citizen to get the Pritzker award.
Ningbo Historic Museum is Wang’s signature project. It offers a perfect example of his style and aesthetic.
The museum is a massive sculptural form referencing the nearby mountains and incorporating mountains, water and ocean.
In a time where towers are erected in days instead of years Wang devotes his work to tradition, history, sustainable use of materials and the people who will inhabit it. The Ningbo Museum is built from materials that were left after disasters and salvaged from demolished buildings. This is an old technique used for centuries by the Chinese building masters and Wang himself says that the “importance of recovering such a technique is pragmatic, historic and cultural.” At first glance it looks like the museum has been there for centuries left behind by natural forces but when you look more closely you realize that the museum itself is a piece of art.
Wang Shu’s achievement shows really how far Chinese architecture has come in modern times. The fact that an architect from China has been selected by the Pritzker jury represents a significant step in acknowledging the role China will play in the development of architectural ideals furthermore it shows the respect the architectural community have for Wang Shu’s dedication to honoring and preserving the traditional construction methods.