Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu Blend New and Old to Create Architecture that can Change People’s Lives

The School of Architecture welcomed Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu and his partner Lu Wenyu during the ACSA Conference in Pittsburgh on Saturday 30 March for the final installment of the 2019 Spring Lecture Series. Their Hangzhou, China-based practice, Amateur Architecture Studio, blends traditional culture with modern methods to create places with the potential to change people’s lives. Image: Michael Powell, Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture

The School of Architecture welcomed Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu and his partner Lu Wenyu during the ACSA Conference in Pittsburgh on Saturday 30 March for the final installment of the 2019 Spring Lecture Series. Their Hangzhou, China-based practice, Amateur Architecture Studio, blends traditional culture with modern methods to create places with the potential to change people’s lives. Image: Michael Powell, Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture

By Susie Kim

Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu and his partner Lu Wenyu joined the School of Architecture during the ACSA Conference in Pittsburgh on Saturday 30 March for the final installment of the 2019 Spring Lecture Series. The lecture, titled “Architectural Education Experiment Pointing to the Real Social Reality,” introduced the couple’s firm Amateur Architecture Studio. The name, Shu says, is not intended to imply that he and his partner are “amateurs” per se, but rather to touch on the fact that China has few “independent architecture firms.” He argues that the name Amateur Architects was only fitting for one of the country’s first independent architecture studios.

Shu describes his home city of Hangzhou as a “landscape city” where small buildings are being demolished to make way for new development aimed at addressing the country’s growing population. He also touched briefly on how cities industrialize, and the fact that governments want flashy high rise buildings in these popular, high tech cities. What, Shu asks, is lost by developing cities in this industrialized manner? His answer was simple--the people and their traditions.

Shu infuses personal experience into his work, and applies lessons learned into his own practice. He cited the Ningbo History Museum as one of the key examples of personal experience surfacing in his work. For this project, he incorporated the use of new materials with the reuse of components from demolished buildings in the area to create the museum’s façade. In this way, the face of the building becomes meaningful to the functional nature of the museum. Since the purpose of museums is to preserve memory, the museum itself becomes the biggest “exhibition” and “collection” of memory.

After this endeavor, Shu still yearned to give more back to the community directly. This inspired him to begin working to rebuild a modern village. The resulting Wencun Village focuses on blending features of new and old villages in order to develop a typology of the modern Chinese village. Shu studied traditional villages and what makes them work. This led him to incorporate houses that are more “crowded” together. This functions well so long as larger common spaces are also incorporated into the design, allowing families to maintain the relationships that they had previously. His design solution uses a “modern” courtyard system, which has been modernized so that cars can move through it while also enabling people to comfortably interact. The design also provides unique, individual houses for each family—there are eight different models available—and three possible material options to choose from. Thus far, 24 prototype houses have been built, providing an individualized experience for each family in the village.

Aside from being traditional “architects,” Shu and Wenyu also try to integrate their love for the environment, craftsmanship, and tradition into their teachings. With the founding of the Architecture School at the China Academy of Art, Shu and Wenyu encourage their students to test things at a 1:1 scale as much as they can. They also couple their knowledge of the field to teach students about materials and their influence on the resulting architecture. The most important lesson that they try to teach their students is that architecture has the ability to change people’s lives, and sometimes even give them a new one.

Susie Kim is a first-year Bachelor of Architecture student in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture.