The lives of building materials are not fixed conditions, but rather part of a continually evolving enterprise. The Romans pilfered construction materials from older edifices to build new monuments, just as medieval populations later pillaged Roman monuments for their own building blocks. Given the profound material changes that architecture experiences over time, futurist Steward Brandt has suggested that we define architecture not as “the art of building,” but rather as “the design-science of the life of buildings.”
Chinese architect Wang Shu, this year’s winner of the Pritzker Prize, exemplifies a profound understanding of the shifting material flows in the constructed environment. Shu and his partner Lu Wenyu of Amateur Architecture Studio have created a series of bold, visually arresting projects that demonstrate the reuse of repurposed building materials in provocative ways. The 2012 Pritzker jury describes the outcome of Shu’s intense collaborations with construction workers as having “an element of unpredictability, which in his case, gives the buildings a freshness and spontaneity.”
An example is seen in the highly textured cladding of the Ningbo Historical Museum, which was inspired by wapan tiling—a construction practice that evolved as a method for building walls rapidly using available materials in a region subject to frequent typhoons. For the museum, Shu specified the reuse of various types of bricks and tiles that remained after the city government razed dozens of villages to make way for a new central business district. He gave masons a large degree of freedom in laying the dissimilar blocks. The rich detail provided by the hand-laid tiles complements the hulking mass of the museum, and the randomly placed, various-sized apertures embrace the wapan approach.
In today’s rapidly developing China, the image of brick and tile rubble left over from hastily razed structures is unfortunately an all-too-common sight. The recent demolition of the house of prominent architects Liang Sicheng and his wife Lin Huiyin in Beijing, for example, is indicative of the rapid and careless destruction of Chinese architectural heritage. “There’s so much demolition,” said Yan Lianke, the notable Chinese author who was recently evicted from his home to make way for new building. “If all the demolitions were reported, maybe there wouldn’t be enough space in all the newspapers, television and radio stations in China.”
Shu adamantly denounces the replacement of important historic structures with the typical cheap developments that fill the contemporary Chinese landscape, declaring that “we must not demolish history in order to develop.” Yet Shu’s extraordinary works owe much of their notoriety to their use of architecture spoils generated by the destruction he condemns.
In this way, Shu’s buildings are as unsettling as they are stimulating, for they remind us of China’s reckless extermination of its own architectural legacy at the same time that they inspire us with their clever use of repurposed materials. The walls of the Ningbo Historical Museum thus serve as a haunting reminder of the past, encapsulating the bones of vanished villages in a monument that pays its respects to history, at the same time that it has come to supersede it.