Decoding Design

Wang Shu wins the Pritzker Prize, architecture's biggest award

Posting in Architecture

This year's Pritzker Prize--architecture's greatest honor--goes to Wang Shu. His victory is also one for contemporary Chinese design, as it signifies China's growing global creative influence.

Ningbo Tengtou Pavilion, Shanghai Expo, 2010, Shanghai, China, designed by Wang Shu

The Pritzker Prize is considered to be the highest honor in architecture. Name a famous or influential architect of the last 33 years (the time that's passed since the Prize was founded by the Chicago family behind the Hyatt hotel business) and he or she will likely be a Pritzker laureate. Philip Johnson (the first winner in 1979); I.M. Pei (1983); Frank Gehry (1989); Rem Koolhaas (2000); Zaha Hadid (2004)--all were honored with Pritzker Prizes. This year's winner is Hangzhou, China-based Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Studio.

2012 Pritzker Prize laureate Wang Shu

Although already well-established in architecture circles, Wang Shu and his practice are likely to receive a boost in attention from winning the Pritzker--as will the architecture industry in China.

“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," said Thomas J. Pritzker, chairman of The Hyatt Foundation, sponsor of the prize, in a statement.

Wang Shu and his wife, Lu Wenyu, named Amateur Architecture Studio in homage of the qualities of spontaneity, craft-making, and respect for cultural tradition that non-professional builders have. Their signature approach combines traditional building techniques and thorough research. “To me architecture is spontaneous for the simple reason that architecture is a matter of everyday life," Wang Shu said in a biographical statement prepared by the Pritzker Prize organizers.

Amateur Architecture Studio is known for incorporating recycled building materials from torn-down structures in new ones. Wang Shu often works with construction workers directly to incorporate discarded bricks, roof tiles and other detritus into elegant, streamlined buildings that incorporate the past via beautiful and highly tactile textures.

His buildings often also create a feeling of ease and harmony with nature while also creating inviting spaces for their human inhabitants. Take for instance, his design for the Xiangshan Campus of China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou. The 2012 Pritzker Jury said of this design: "The exterior and interior connections between buildings and private and public spaces provide a rich environment where an emphasis on livability prevails."

Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, Phase II, 2004-2007, Hangzhou, China

That Wang Shu is this year's Pritzker winner is also a victory for contemporary Chinese design. It's obvious that mainstream attention to China has been growing, given the nation's powerful global economic influence. Now, its global design influence is clearly accelerating, too.

Images: Pritzker Prize (Ningbo Tengtou Pavilion, Shanghai Expo, photo by Lu Wenyu; portrait of Wang Shu, photo by  Zhu Chenzhou)

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure