Sunday, March 11, 2012

Amateur Architecture: A Brief Photo-Chronology

It's been about two weeks since Wang Shu received the 2012 Pritzker Prize for Architecture; no doubt the world has no more need of a post dedicated to his firm, Amateur Architecture. This is even more true since my erstwhile colleague Evan Chakroff has published his summary essay; I may take issue with aspects of his argument, or where he places emphasis, but since I contributed in a small way to the editing of the piece, I feel I've already had my chance to weigh in. That said, here I go.

Before I get into the work, I have to ask: why did the Pritzker jury honor Wang alone, and not Amateur Architecture? The selection of SANAA in 2010 showed they were comfortable with the branding exercise of firms picking clever names for themselves; more importantly, it demonstrated a tentative recognition that architecture is rarely the work of the single, romantic genius, but rather a team product from the word go, even without taking into account all the people outside the architectural office who actually make the project happen. Switching back to just "Wang Shu" is bizarre. It's not the name of the firm, and moreover, Amateur is consistently cited elsewhere as having two principals - Wang Shu and his wife, Lu Wenyu. You could even make the case that they more deserve the joint prize, since Lu is a founding partner of the firm, whereas SANAA trades on the burgeoning reputation Kazuyo Seijima enjoyed even before Ryue Nishizawa was made partner. As this timeline reminds me, we seem to be back to the mindset that gave Robert Venturi a Pritzker for work that was jointly produced with Denise Scott Brown.

Wang's own public statements indicate that he chooses to interpret the award broadly. To quote Jia Gu's gloss of a recent Wang lecture, "My work is with my wife. This Pritzker Prize is not just for me, but with my wife, my assistants, the President." (The President?) One wonders what Lu thinks about all this. What's the deal? Straight up sexism? Does it look bad for a man to be ranked equal with his wife? Or for her to have kept her surname? Is it a Hillary Rodham thing? Or, maybe, some apparatchik thought the name "Amateur" didn't represent China well, and meddled in the process somehow? Who knows? It's just annoying.

Anyway, I do have a hundred and forty-seven Amateur photos on Flickr, and I think some of them are pretty cool, so this will largely just be a deck-clearing entry to get my remaining notes and favorite shots in one place. That said, the web has seen a lot of pretty pictures of these projects recently, so I'll do my best to quickly summarize what the projects are actually about. This is mostly based on my very hasty and (dare I say it) amateurish research last year, so I can't claim to have any great insight into these projects...

Contemporary Art Museum (Ningbo, 2001-2005)

I'd like to treat this work in roughly chronological order. Amateur's star has risen so quickly that one is led into kind of surreal discussions of the "early" work versus their "mature" output; it's tempting to see buildings like the Suzhou library (which we didn't visit) or the Ningbo Art Museum as "early," and then all the weirder, more materially rich and visually unique stuff as "late." Certainly, there are some big differences, but Amateur is a young firm in the grand scheme of things, and in ten or twenty years, all these projects may be lumped together as a series of miscellaneous experiments that resulted in some later synthesis, yet unseen.

And, subdued detailing and orthogonal form-making aside, there are a lot of things here that recur in later projects. Evan's pointed out the proportions of the overall rectangle, and the organization around large courtyards faced in channel glass, show up again in the Ningbo History Museum. As well, there's an attempt to ground the project in its past, which here is made very specific but elsewhere becomes generalized to the "lost Chinese city" or some other larger issue of our relationship with history as such.

This design began life as a rehabilitation of a 1980s "waiting-room-building" on Ningbo's "Old Bund," a port area whose port facilities have relocated. However, the old building turned out to be unsalvageable - except for its beacon tower, which is retained in the new building (though hard to see from close up). As well, the architects claim the "special pattern" of the original building's interior shows up in this design, although it's hard to be sure what exactly they're referring to.

Meanwhile, the final design recapitulates the "port" theme by organizing entry as a "deck" reached by "jetties" on the west side (which continue through the building to become cantilevers on the east side, where they actually do face the river); supposedly, these align with the locations of former, actual landing bridges.

Urbanistically, the staging of entry through the smaller courtyard is meant to echo Chinese tradition, in opposition to the contemporary flair (shared by Ningbo) for super-plazas. So we get a couple of abrupt turnarounds along the way, not to mention windows framing views through further-away windows to inaccessible space.

If that's not enough meaning for you yet, how about this: in section, the lower part of the museum "supports" the upper - it accommodates the necessary evils of parking as well as commercial expos and some leasable space, which make the art museum fiscally viable. Finally, the building restages history through material: the brick in the foundation is supposed to recall the demolished building, steel and timber above are to suggest "shipping," and small grottoes in the base "give a hint that the building was once the place where pilgrims set out to the holy island of Putuoshan." (What the same dichotomy means in other projects, where all of these things could be found far from Putuoshan and with no demolished buildings to speak of, is anybody's guess.)

The metaphors are heavy by some standards but light in comparison to corporate architecture in China: the museum's not shaped like a dragon, or a lotus, or a yin-yang, but it is loaded by the architect with explicit meaning in ways that few prominent Americans (save maybe Steven Holl) really get into in the 21st century.

And it does the job. The cantilevered "piers" don't really look much like gangplanks, thankfully, but they give the place a unique presence. Perhaps one could situate this under the "Big Pomo" umbrella that absorbs both the Venturi House and Guggenheim Bilbao as complex buildings carrying multiple readings simultaneously, resonating with familiarity while ever looking exactly like any one thing.

Xiangshan Campus Phase One (Hangzhou, 2002-2004)

Evan devotes much of his essay to the two phases of this art academy outside of Hangzhou, so I'll just make a few small additions and let the photos do their thing. What you may notice first off is a considerably enriched material palette that seems to go for texture more than anything. This progression would perhaps be even clearer if I had photos of the Suzhou University Library, which predates all these projects - clearly, from there to the Ningbo Art Museum there's a considerable step up in materiality, and then another one when we get to Xiangshan.

It's worth noting that in addition to the low simmer of different architectural styles which Evan correctly observes, and the consistent deployment of a reinvented courtyard typology (thoroughly appropriate to the climate), this project is driven first and foremost by a landscape idea with social implications: preserve the existing hill at the center of the site. This not only gives the campus its spatial identity and sense of journey (you're always orbiting the hill, which the buildings embrace in a broken "C"); it was also supposed to provide a preserved green where local farmers could put their animals out to graze. Whether this idea survived to the end product is unclear, but the point is Amateur's suspicion of "progress" for the sake of progress, and the obliteration of the Chinese agricultural landscape and way of life in the rush to develop Western-style institutions. Remember the flattening of Shenzhen's hills?

The sales-pitch use of metaphor is somewhat dialed down here; Amateur confine themselves to a remark that the Phase One campus suggests Simplified Chinese writing, whereas Phase Two evokes traditional calligraphy. This sounds hokey, but it might actually be super interesting: if Evan's right that Phase One constitutes a sort of summation of China's history to date, and Phase Two distills a "new vernacular" for the future, then Simplified Chinese - a 20th century project - is linked to the historical, and it's the traditional (and more difficult to read) Chinese script that points the way forward by way of the past.

Of course, the real action may be, as Evan suggests, in the connective tissue of the walk ways. Wang points out (again, paraphrased): The campus, when we finished, two photographers came to take photos, they said, they don't know how to take photos. Even one single facade. Why couldn't they do it? Because here the architecture was not the most important. The different walkways, the different heights, are all different - its two things together. The inside and outside vision are different.

Of course, there is a long tradition of covered-walkway campuses, going back in the West as far as Romanesque monasteries. In China the idea runs back through the Suzhou gardens to god-knows-where, but anywhere on earth that it rains you can sort of expect to find this idea in one form or another. My favorite example is still Doshi's IIM campus in Bangalore - but Amateur are less interested in the disciplining force of the grid, and their linked world of walkways is considerably looser and more picturesque in its promenade.

Five Scattered Houses (Ningbo, 2003-2006)

This is a little collection of follies or pavilions for a new park, sandwiched between the new civic center and the new CBD, all gathered, of course, on the outskirts of Ningbo. I haven't found too much on these, and we didn't get inside any, so here's just a quick Whitman's sampler of the things. What's interesting is that the newly textured language of Xiangshan Phase One is now being tried out in a rather more varied set of forms. Lightning-bolt profiles start showing up, things get stacked on top of each other, window openings start getting funky, and a peculiar, flattened out "string of pagoda roofs" motif shows up for the first time. Perhaps most importantly, we see the first wall made out of haphazardly-piled detritus, the discarded roof tiles and bricks that both celebrate the art of the bricklayer while critiquing the senseless demolitions that produce so much excess material in the first place.

Xiangshan Phase One is excellently-done work, but it lacks the idiosyncracies (some would say "tics") that have come to characterize Amateur's work, and which help bolster the sense of it offering some kind of synthetic resistance strategy to a totalizing international culture. The Five Scattered Houses begin to demonstrate those idiosyncracies; as a set of experiments they're naturally on the motley and eclectic side, and some of them appear (at the moment anyway) to have been dead ends for the practice.

(It's tempting to read that last one as an orphaned bit of La Tourette,

Our next building actually appears like another folly in the garden - the underappreciated "Sixth Scattered House."

History Museum (Ningbo, 2003-2008)

Yup - this is the big one. Evan's original essay hits the high points for me, and his photos were taken in better light, so this will be brief. Highlights:

As elsewhere, pay attention to where things do weird stuff. This building eschews the clarity of the earlier museum in Ningbo, where wood was framed by steel, which sat on brick. Neat, tidy, and stable. Here, though, a concrete building seems to sit on a comparatively shakier foundation of rubble, and the building swells out as it rises, an anti-pyramidal composition that plays against the stability of Wholesome Old Brick. The window openings pepper their way right past the seam, downplaying the discontinuity which is then re-invoked by the naked and none-too-steady lines of the concrete pours. It's the concrete building (technology!) that shows a sedimentary expression (natural!), but only at a distance; close-up, the bamboo formwork has left a tactile, light-raked impression: rough and linear, sort of like the brick, but left by wood. Despite its monumental presence, this is not a building particularly insistent on clarity.

Coffee House (Jinhua, 2004-2006)

Another park pavilion, this one for the ambitious and now badly-maintained Jinhua Architecture Park. I'll be covering Jinhua in a future entry; you can get an outline from Evan, but suffice it to say that the park's mastermind Ai Weiwei, with Herzog & de Meuron, were seeking to create a kind of weird alternate-reality park, where architecture would be used to expose Jinhua's children to new, freer concepts of space. The political implications are so transparent it's amazing it got off the ground, and unsurprisingly the place has now been allowed to fall into ruin.

(Oddly enough, when we visited in December, Amateur's contribution was getting some renovation work done. I would baselessly speculate that this was government intervention, intended either to bolster the Chinese firm's Pritkzer chances, or at least give a better impression of the work once the victory was in.)

Anyway, "imagine different worlds" is a pretty good brief for an architecture park, since each designer gets the dream invitation: "Do something ker-razy! We want different-ness!" What's nice is that there are certain recurring strategies and tactics, emanating from the project's masterminds: games of scale, with imagination-provoking ambiguities between the overall massing and the small-scale pattern, or between the massing as it appears from one end and another, etc.

It's an Alice in Wonderland garden, and so this coffee house sort of says "DRINK ME": is the building a giant-scale Song Dynasty ink basin, as the designers claim? "Drinking coffee inside is just like sitting at the bottom of the ink stone." Sure!

The ramp is also supposed to channel southeastern breezes, as well as provide a place for contemplation-inspiring shade trees. Supposedly, if gazing along the ramp, "all evidence of perspective appears to be lost," and if you sit at the bottom and look up, you'll see only the tree canopy above. As the building was inspired by a traditional sculptural object, Zhou was recruited to cover the building in colorful ceramic tile, except for the numerous small openings which admit air and light.

So there's all that, and then you wonder: is the big opening on the southern facade one of the little openings from the parallel walls, scaled up? The forced perspective, the oddly-scaled's a kind of funhouse. However, Amateur remain Amateur, and their funhouse is a stately one, and not so delirious. You would be forgiven for mistaking it for a cemetery pavilion, or plain old peaceful garden folly. Wang & Lu offer the children cloud-gazing daydreams rather than hyperactive fantasies. I wouldn't necessarily rank one of those above the other, but it's a significant difference in approach.

Xiangshan Campus Phase Two (Hangzhou, 2004-2007)

All this leads us up to maybe the firm's greatest achievement to date, in sheer production terms. I stress that they are a ten-person firm; taken together, the two phases of the Xiangshan art academy amount to twenty-one buildings over the course of six years. Perhaps Wang's status as head of the architecture program at this very school came in handy somehow, but it's still just a hell of a lot of work to get done!

Of course, the buildings borrow from each other heavily; as in Phase One, a certain set of basic formal types gets riffed on, while they play mix-and-match with a limited array of wall surface approaches. The walkways infiltrate the buildings themselves, weaving between the different structures, as the site plan gets rather tighter.

Meanwhile, the historical quotation gets a little more explicit but simultaneously weirder. This is no one's idea of what a Chinese temple roof actually looks like - it's a flattened-out cartoon of one, or rather of several of them.

If FAT did this, the same people who laud Amateur's sensitivity to context would be rolling their eyes. Not to mention - the architects run walkways right up alongside the outer edge here, something you normally don't expect to find in a temple (something you access frontally and axially, at ground level where you can be dwarfed by its size).

Is this a hint of a slightly irreverent edge to Amateur, a desire to subvert the potentially ponderous and provincial power of their approach? Remember the chain link fence - - and the wall filled in with pop bottles to spell Tomorrow.

And hey - look at how the elevations at macro-scale are trying to play the same "miscellaneous stacking" game that happens in micro-scale in the construction. More of that Alice in Wonderland stuff they picked up from Ai in Jinhua?

Hmmmmm. Well, anyway.

Zhongshan Road (Hangzhou, 2007-2009)

Finally, we come to Zhongshan Road (or Zhongshan Lu), the most recent permanent project by the firm and in a way my favorite. As discussed in Lotus International #141 (March 2010), the project came about when Wang found himself at a public meeting discussing plans for the much-abused street (once the avenue around the Song Dynasty capital), which was in bad desrepair but had also suffered the depredations of urban renewal. The option of demolishing the whole stretch was on the table. For Wang, this called for a larger discussion of the core values of city planning:

Over the past twenty years almost every city has had 90% of its historical buildings destroyed, which means 90% of the existing urban areas have been rebuilt. In addition, cities have expanded several times in size. So what has happened in cities?

Wang's critique focused on the urban planning principles that had led to the street's being widened and its edges eroded with self-contained buildings. The contemporary Chiense model of 60-meter-wide highways was, he said, a recipe for continued "US suburbanization." (Wang is given to observing that China's imitation of American ways has been a mixed bag; it comes up a lot in the few public statements of his that I've read.)

As an alternative, he proposed a return to the typical 12-meter width of major streets in the historical city, which "reflects the true city life structure - convenient for walking and bicycles." Having won the job, the Amateur team spent a summer researching the street inch-by-inch, concluding that, while some demolition was necessary, the historical diversity of the buildings could and should be preserved. Essentially, the approach from there on was a kind of thickening of the street.

New pavilions were added and building edges stepped forward (sometimes in the hands of other architects, as part of an effort to maintain the existing diversity); plantings and water channels broke up the vast width of the street; new gates were inserted at major intersections to tie down the north-south vistas and give a sense of identity to the place. Where possible, existing buildings and trees were preserved. An open space at the southern end was transformed into a place just by adding a low building along the eastern edge - screening the view of the highway and bringing the scale down to something more plaza-like.

It's a great project. Check out this "before and after" rendering, posted in a little mini-museum/gallery (built by Amateur in 2009 and discussed here) - the "after," for once, is completely accurate.

Pedestrianizing the street and thickening its edges was all the place needed. Indeed, if I have any complaint it's that the Amateur pavilions themselves seem to sort of exceed the need - they seem a bit fussy or stylized, weird for the sake of weird, even if their material sensibility is as impeccable as always. But at the same time, maybe they kind of camouflage themselves - by being so numerous and so matter-of-fact about their oddity, they kind of just become the new datum - I guess they just build things kinda weird in Hangzhou, huh, Martha?.

But the main thing is the refutation of the idea that generic bad urban planning is the best we can do - or by extension, the Koolhaasian notion that urbanism is gone and never coming back. This urban critique, for Amateur, is a reflection of a larger refusal to roll over and get to work polishing the gleaming monuments of global capital's universal mediocrity. Their work is interesting not because it hybridizes "Chinese ways" or "modern ways," or even because it produces beautiful space through a thoughtful command of material and light.

What fascinates me about Amateur is that they insist on injecting the weird right into the heart of the "timeless." Even while they (and the Pritzker jury) talk about it in sensitive terms worthy of deep contemplation and Zumthorian seriousness, the work itself is loose and squiggly, not just in terms of the wonky cuts and openings (which will wear out their shock value soon) but in the entire project. They are at once richly contemplative and decidedly strange. Once again, here in China, amidst the rapacious whirlwind of development we were led to expect, we find the first seedlings of a feasible alternative.


  1. I love the idea that the Five Scattered Houses represent Five Possible Paths towards the future, for Amateur Architecture, they tested them all out and just picked the ones that worked (Voronoi House: "Meh.").

    Now I really want to go find that Suzhou library.

  2. FYI, this diagram:

    is upside down!