In Wang Shu's Pritzker Prize, a Radical Critique of Chinese Urbanization

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Ningbo
Ningbo History Museum. Photo by Lv Hengzhong.

International awards are often as much about politics as they are about rewarding accomplishment and innovation in the field, but the Pritzker Prize has been relatively apolitical exception in recent years. Architecture has at times been highly politicized – European modernism was for decades deeply intertwined with socialist politics – but lately, winners of architecture's highest award, starchitects like Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers, have been more known for their design and fame than politics.

Then came Wang Shu. He may be the first China-based architect to win a Pritzker, but his prize is no great honor to the Chinese government or its architectural zeitgeist. In the past Wang has built some more mainstream commercial and residential projects, some downright normal looking, but his work nowadays is embeded with a deeply critical message on the nature and pace of Chinese urbanization.

Wang's most obvious theme is historic preservation. His most critically acclaimed building, the Ningbo History Museum, is a made out of recycled brick from the region, and his 2006 Venice Biennale piece, the Tiled Garden, was planted with tiles recovered from buildings that had been razed in China to make way for large-scale development.

But his more subversive message, at least to the Chinese government, is his stance on urbanization – that is, not only the buildings being torn down, but what is replacing them. Wang Shu may talk a lot about preservation, but he is, after all, an architect, and his buildings represent the way he feels China should move forward: slower, more horizontal, and more rural. (To say nothing of his own life – in his lecture at UCLA on Monday, Wang joked that he doesn't know how to use a computer beyond moving the Powerpoint slide forward, which is especially astonishing given that at 49, he's young for a Pritzker Prize.)

From wide streets to skyscrapers, everything about the modern hypertrophic city seems anathema to Wang. He said that in 1950, his adopted hometown of Hangzhou looked like Paris. Now it looks like Singapore. People are beginning to ask, 'What is the aim of all this development?' At one point in the talk, he criticized the fact that many Chinese studied abroad and have absorbed Western templates.

Xiangshan
Xiangshan Campus, China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou. Photo by Lu Wenyu. With lots of open space, Wang's designs preclude Japanese-scale low-rise density.

One obvious alternative to the hypertrophic Western model, which has been eagerly adopted throughout the Sinosphere and Southeast Asia, is the low-rise, tightly-packed Japanese urban model. With 35 million people, Tokyo may be far and away the world's largest metropolis, but it's relatively squat compared to towering cities Shanghai or Hong Kong – its tallest skyscraper doesn't even break 250 meters, while Chicago has 12 taller than that.

But for one thing, Japan is much more tightly packed than Wang's spin on traditional Chinese urbanism. He says his ideal street is only twelve meters wide, but he seems to have no problem with the wide open empty spaces, recalling the Western template of modernist city planning. LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne quotes Wang as saying the traditional Chinese urban model was 50 percent built and 50 percent open space, which is quite sparse compared to other low-slung world cities with narrow streets. Charlie Gardner estimates that the cores of Paris, Vienna, and Barcelona (specifically, the Eixample neighborhood) are about three-quarters developed, with Tokyo rising to 80 percent building coverage, leaving only a fifth of the land for streets and open spaces.

Another way that modern Japan strays from Wang's neo-traditional ideal is that it that it has one of the highest rates of urbanization outside of city-states. Though the Japanese government has tried for decades to halt rural decline, it has found little success. Wang's ideal Chinese future, on the other hand, echoes Gandhi, who once said that the future of India lies in its villages. Wang's critique of urbanization seems to be absolute, and not limited to the hypertrophic city. Is urbanization, Wang asked on Monday at UCLA, the only way to development in China?

It's not hard to see why Wang, and many in China, would adopt such an anti-urban stance. Modern Chinese urbanization is similar in pace to that of the United States around the turn of the last century, but it does not always share the same respect for property rights, which are especially poorly established in the Chinese countryside and on the ever-moving urban frontier. Wang alludes to China's heavy-handed use of what we in the U.S. would call eminent domain, pointing out that his firm refuses to do projects where residents are moved by force – something that the Chinese authorities do with far less impunity than American developers one hundred years ago.

And while political pressures and Wang Shu's continued residence in China surely keep him from speaking directly about it, it's not hard to see the politics of his birthplace, Ürümqi, coloring his perspective of urbanization. The city, and ones like it across China's peripheral provinces, are on the front lines of the central government's efforts to weaken the demographic strength of minorities like the Uighurs and Tibetans in their homelands. It does this by diluting the regions with Han (China's dominant ethnicity) newcomers like Wang Shu's parents, who end up clustering in large cities – Xinjiang Province is 45 percent Uighur, while its capital, Ürümqi, is 75 percent Han. The city errupted in deadly ethnic riots in 2009, and tensions continue to this day, with twelve killed in riots in the predominantly Uighur city of Kashgar this morning.

Another ugly side side of Chinese urbanization that Wang has seen first hand is the massive destruction involved in China's catch-up growth. Before the liberalization of the Deng Xiaoping era, Chinese cities hewed to the socialist city model, as described by Alain Bertraud and Bertrand Renaud. Administrative planning chose to pile new housing on the urban fringe rather than gradually redevelop the city center, resulting in an awkward circus tent shape and an underdeveloped core. Deprived of the opportunity for organic redevelopment during much of the twentieth century, Chinese cities must negotiate between two unappealing extremes: freezing cities as they are, risking Indian-style urban stagnation; and allowing unchecked redevelopment in the core, risking much of China's architectural heritage.

But despite China's problems with urbanization, the movement to cities remains an enduring trend throughout civlization, and not one that Wang Shu, or anything short of catostrophic economic collapse, is going to be able to stop. A retreat from the world of modern city building like the one Wang has embarked on for the last two decades is simply unrealistic for China. Would-be urban migrants are already chafing under the restrictions of the hukou system, which keeps citizens registered in rural areas out of cities (at least legally). Even Indian-style restrictions on vertical urban growth seem unthinkable, and given India's stubborn poverty, it's probably not even desirable.

A halt to the demolition of old neighborhoods is a worthy and realistic goal. But without a willingness to make up for the missed density elsewhere, Wang Shu's brand of anti-urbanization risks irrelevance in the face of hundreds of millions of rural Chinese banging on the city gates.

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