An Architect’s Vision: Bare Elegance in China

The New York Times’ Jane Perlez profiles architect Wang Shu, whose selection as China’s first Pritzker Prize winner in February received a somewhat mixed reaction from some of his countrymen.

In awarding this year’s Pritzker Prize to Mr. Wang, 48, in February, the jury catapulted to center stage an architect who profoundly disagrees with China’s rush to urbanization and has found a way to criticize it through his own style of work. Mr. Wang, who grew up in China’s far western reaches in Xinjiang province, is an outlier in his profession here. He has designed only one apartment building, a series of 14-story blocks with deep verandas, in Hangzhou. His museums, academies, homes, and a garden of ancient tiles are all touched by old China. […]

It is the rush to emulate the West and the insistence on trashing what makes China so distinctive that upsets Mr. Wang. Why should China become something it’s not, he asks. “We want to copy Manhattan,” he said over lunch near his studio. “I love Manhattan. It’s a very interesting place. But if you want to copy something that was accomplished in 200 years, it’s very difficult. New York was not designed by architects, it was designed by time.”

Part of his criticism is driven by a recognition that a nexus of government officials and crony investors have made enormous amounts of money clearing land of old dwellings and broken roads to build highways, airports, rail stations and housing. “Sixty percent of government income comes not from normal tax but from the sale of land,” he said. Some reports put the percentage of take from land sales even higher. Phoenix New Media, a company in Hong Kong that is sympathetic to the Chinese government, recently quoted a report from the Ministry of Land and Resources that said that 74.1 percent of government revenues in 2010 came from land sales, up from virtually zero in 1989.

These sales frequently involve land grabs and forced demolitions, with some desperate evictees resorting to bombing attacks or self-immolation. China Daily reported last year that forced demolitions were the country’s leading cause of social unrest.

Read more about architecture and urban development in China via CDT.