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Idealog—in the ideas business

He's known for incorporating discarded bricks, roof tiles and other detritus into elegant, streamlined buildings, and now Wang Shu has been named as the recipient of the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the industry's highest honour.

Wang Shu

Wang Shu, Pritzker Prize winner. Photo: Zhu Chenzhou

Founded in 1979 by the late Jay A. Pritzker and his wife, Cindy, the Pritzker Prize recognises a living architect whose built work demonstrates talent, vision and commitment and contributed to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture. The laureates receive a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion.

Thomas J. Pritzker, chairman of sponsor the Hyatt Foundation, said the fact an architect from China had been selected by the jury represented a "significant step" in acknowledging the role China will play in the development of architectural ideals.

"China’s success at urbanisation will be important to China and to the world. This urbanisation, like urbanisation around the world, needs to be in harmony with local needs and culture. China’s unprecedented opportunities for urban planning and design will want to be in harmony with both its long and unique traditions of the past and with its future needs for sustainable development.”

Jury chairman Lord Palumbo added: “The question of the proper relation of present to past is particularly timely, for the recent process of urbanization in China invites debate as to whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should look only toward the future. As with any great architecture, Wang Shu´s work is able to transcend that debate, producing an architecture that is timeless, deeply rooted in its context and yet universal.”

Wang Shu, 48, is head of the architecture department of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.

“This is really a big surprise," he said.

"I suddenly realised that I’ve done many things over the last decade. It proves that earnest hard work and persistence lead to positive outcomes.”

His architectural practice Amateur Architecture Studio was founded in 1997.

“For myself, being an artisan or a craftsman, is an amateur or almost the same thing.”

His first major project, the Library of Wenzheng College at Suzhou University in 2000, was in keeping with his philosophy of paying scrupulous attention to the environment. With careful consideration of traditions of Suzhou gardening which suggest that buildings located between water and mountains should not be prominent, he designed the library with nearly half of the building underground. In 2004, the library received the Architecture Arts Award of China.

Other major projects include the Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum and History Museum, as well as five scattered houses in Ningbo which received acknowledgment from the Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction in the Asia Pacific.

In his native city of Hangzhou, he oversaw a major project at the Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art. True to his method of economy of materials, he salvaged over two million tiles from demolished traditional houses to cover the roofs of the campus buildings.

Other international recognition includes the French gold medal from the Academy of Architecture in 2011. The year before, both he and his wife, Lu Wenyu, were awarded the German Schelling Architecture Prize.

Last year, he became the first Chinese architect to hold the position of “Kenzo Tange Visiting Professor” at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He is also a frequent visiting lecturer at many universities around the world.

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