Travelogue: Wang Shu at the Xiangshan Central Campus

Stavros Martinos is the Editor in Chief of Archisearch.gr. He just got back from his first trip to China, where he was invited to speak at the Xingyi East 2014 China International Architectural Decoration Design Week. This "travelogue" is about his personal experience of the local community of architects and designers and his visit to Xiangshan Central Campus of the China Academy of Art, designed by Wang Shu. 

Travelogue: Wang Shu at the Xiangshan Central Campus


Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Studio was the first contemporary Chinese architect to come into the international spotlight for winning the Pritzker Prize in 2012, in a quite predictable move of the jury – at least, in my view: China was (and still remains) the undisputed global leader in construction, Chinese contemporary architecture was (and still remains to us) the great unknown, there had to be some Chinese architect of merit nowadays and Wang was, indeed, markedly original as well as too obviously Chinese.

The published images of his work, accessible to me through the English-language media, gave me mixed feelings at first (even those very nice ones by Iwan Baan); coming from Greece myself, I have grown to be very critical of any “critical regionalism” label placed upon architecture:  Always implying a security distance,  such an attitude gives away a whiff of political correctness; I tend to consider everything as the result of an uncomfortable, post-colonial ennui of critics from the center, scouting for “authenticity” in the periphery and rewarding anything conveniently exotic with gestures of appreciation and sensible writing in international publications.

Deep down, I find such a mindset alienating: well intended as it might be, it keeps constituting an “other” - our “other”. Furthermore, in a case such as contemporary China, I also tend to find it plainly absurd: China is not the docile, far-removed kind of “periphery” we're all used to, but, more and more, it becomes an alternative center of the planet and holds many surprising innovations for all of us in the near future. Within that framework,  I am very grateful at how first-hand experience of Wang's buildings, situated inside a 8,500,000-strong new and dynamic metropolis, made me reconsider everything in a different light – not just about his own work but about critical attitudes towards architecture as a whole, in a time of rapid and profound globalization.

 

Travelogue: Wang Shu at the Xiangshan Central Campus

Xiangshan Central Campus of the China Academy of Art


A few days ago I came back from my first ever visit to China; the Hangzhou Architectural Decoration Association had been very kind to invite me as a speaker at the Xingyi East 2014 China International Architectural Decoration Design Week, as a follow-up to the visit of about 20 architects form Hangzhou to Athens in October, hosted by the Berlin-based architectural networking platform, Designlobby.Asia. The day before the conference was free, so the first thing I asked to do was visit the Xiangshan Central Campus of the China Academy of Art, designed by Wang, out of great curiosity.

The campus, a few miles outside Hangzhou, is home to China's most esteemed school of architecture and came as a very pleasant shock to me: its seemingly unusual buildings felt both oddly familiar as well as very far removed from anything photography can convey. I hadn't felt that way but on only one other occasion – walking and standing inside buildings by (...surprise, surprise!) Adolf Loos. In Wang's case, architecture was more than just “the buildings”; rather, it was an integrated landscape project, where walking on the ground was but one way of looking at things. Wang's architecture is infinitely much more than his signature textures of pastiched walls made of the remains of demolished hutongs or of bare concrete surfaces bearing the imprint of bamboo-clad molds; that is but a mere narrative of chinoiserie, literally kept on the surface of things, but it fails to convey the entire picture. First and foremost, Wang's architecture is a magnificent succession of interiors, experienced by walking on a meandering line crossing through elevated walkways and levels in all three (or four) dimensions: one often feels like flying, or moving slightly above ground like a ghost. 

 

Travelogue: Wang Shu at the Xiangshan Central Campus

Xiangshan Central Campus of the China Academy of Art


Carefully selected openings and channeled perspectives just intensify one's urge to keep walking, pulling towards the inside. The way forward is opened by means of the gaze, at times even penetrating through the walls; I have yet to understand the logic behind the geometry of  Wang's crooked doorways and fragmented windows, however they are all very wisely placed there in a way to suggest depth – more space, behind the obvious limit. This is an architecture that slowly reveals itself and requires one's presence; it may at times be very photogenic as well, but in the end the experience is immersive. Perhaps the most impressive feat of Wang's campus is the way he created a place of silence, engulfed inside a sprawling new city of towers, about the size of New York: All one can hear there is the orioles singing in the willows, or tiny streams of water, mirroring the fog.

If I were to pick but one building I spent hours moving inside, that would be the new Tiles Hill complex: A stunning, 394-foot long maze of pathways and courtyards executed in rammed earth, bare concrete and bamboo screens, sheltered under an undulating angular roof. Most spaces are open-air yet covered, while the program includes a beautifully intimate tea room with an artifact shop and a guest house for visiting academics. The building is Amateur Architecture Studio's most recent work on campus and comes as the condensed result of 12 years of work on the site. Perhaps the most redundant thing in this case would be to speak of superimposed “floors” or “levels”: Everything is stairs or ramps, courtyards and corridors – pure space. It must be a great pleasure staying there; besides, the CAA is an extrovert school, with a number of international visiting professors every spring semester. I see that building with its occasional inhabitants becoming a major incubator in the global debate on architecture in the near future.  At the present moment, the campus is awaiting two much anticipated additions: Two new museums, one designed by Kengo Kuma and one by Alvaro Siza. Both architects were the choice of Wang Shu. 

 

Travelogue: Wang Shu at the Xiangshan Central Campus

Xiangshan Central Campus of the China Academy of Art


The Design Week event next day was held at the Quianjiang New City Civic Center, set in the middle of a vast, granite-clad plaza lined with skyscrapers, among which featured the latest UN-Studio twin tower project and a huge, spherical-shaped  Intercontinental hotel straight out of Vegas. I got to learn about a big number of Chinese architects and designers previously unknown to me and sample their work at the photographic exhibition downstairs. Many were in their early 30ies, yet they had already been astonishingly prolific by western standards. Their designs could feature in any international magazine or blog right now and most tried to highlight their Chinese origins in their choice of materials or furniture (this seems to be a trend right now); however, they remained pretty opaque in expressing the way they think, besides drawing and building. I am sure we will see and hear a lot of them in the near future, hopefully also in writing – their own writing.

 

Travelogue: Wang Shu at the Xiangshan Central Campus

Hangzhou


Wang was not there (and he is very hard to find, indeed – Amateur Architecture Studio don't even have their own website) but I had the opportunity to talk with some of his colleagues from the University: All seemed very gentle, cultured, down to earth and polite yet not terribly talkative, at least not by our western standards of public speaking expected of academics. The language barrier is hard to overcome and one is always in need of a good translator: English doesn't help one a lot in those premises. My own speech was on the dangers of exoticizing different people and the necessity of discovering our common understanding as architects, living in the same world at the same time; it was appreciated by some and not by some others.
Oddly, it all felt just like home. I know I will be going back, soon.