Wang Shu of the People’s Republic of China is the 2012 Pritzker Prize laureate. While not entirely unknown outside China, his relatively anonymity is confirmed by the fact that neither he nor his practice—Amateur Architecture Studio—had Wikipedia entries as recently as this past weekend. With the $100,000 award and bronze medal, the 49-year-old Shu takes his place among such architectural luminaries as Frank Gehry, FAIA (1989), Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA (1998), and Zaha Hadid, FAIA (2004).
Shu received architectural degrees form the Nanjing Institute of Technology in 1985 and 1988. Prior to establishing his Hangzhou-based practice in 1997, Shu eschewed design to work with craftsmen to learn the art of building. “I decided to work outside the system,” Shu says, noting that within the Chinese technical institutes, “they don’t touch real things. I did renovations where I had to work with materials and craftsmen. I wanted to know everything.”
The 10-person firm led by Shu and his wife, Lu Wenyu, as produced a substantial body of work in just a decade and a half, including the serenely elegant Ceramic House in Jinhua; a sprawling Xiangshan campus for the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou; a dramatically rough and primitive box for the Ningbo History Museum in Ningbo; and a complex of six 26-story towers for the Vertical Courtyard Apartments in Hangzchou.
Shu’s work often incorporates recycled and natural materials, developing distinctly modern buildings that are unique to their place and culture. “Modern architecture is very abstract; it’s pristine when it’s new, but then it decays,” Shu says. “Traditional building is dirty and rough, but it makes you feel better.” He places his work in a context with those modern, Western architects who have most influenced him: Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos, Carlos Scarpa, and earlier Pritzker laureates Aldo Rossi, Hon. FAIA (1990) and Alvaro Siza (1992). “I build on the masterworks, but my experience is Chinese,” Shu says. “Craftsmen in China do things by memory. It’s a challenge [to incorporate this into your own designs], but you can use this to do creative things.”
The Hyatt Foundation chairman Thomas J. Pritzker—whose family sponsors the Prize that bears its name, but does not sit on its jury—comments that Wang Shu’s “standard of excellence” will be important to China’s future. "The fact that an architect from China has been selected by the jury represents a significant step in acknowledging the role that China will play in the development of architectural ideals," Pritzker says.
American I.M. Pei, FAIA, who won the award in 1983, is the only other Chinese-born individual to be so honored. The prize will be formally presented on May 25 in Beijing, a site announced at the presentation of last year’s Pritzker Prize to Portugal’s Eduardo Souto de Moura in Washington, D.C. Interestingly, the Pritzker Prize website went bilingual earlier this month—adding Chinese. It will be interesting to watch in coming years to see if the addition of new languages tips future winners.