Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Build & Destroy (& Build)

To fully appreciate Wang Shu’s new campus for the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, it’s useful to travel to the city by bus. For much of the trip, your view is dominated by the unindustrialized agriculture that occupies so much of the Chinese countryside. You will see very little nature, and a great deal of mud, divided into tiny, meticulously parceled plots, some of which extend to within centimeters of the expressway. Small clusters of buildings appear every few hundred meters. They are mostly constructed of locally-produced brick and mirror the ruddy brownness of the earth from which they came, giving the scene a tranquilizing chromatic consistency.

As you get nearer to the city, things begin to change. The foreground of farm life is compressed by a backdrop of cooling towers and smoke stacks. The air perceptibly grays and the images of rustic toil – elderly women bent over rice fields, teens transporting pigs by motorcycle, middle aged men hauling hay bales… – take on an ominous aura. There are glints of promise in the gloom, though. As if to compensate for the worsening atmosphere, the living conditions noticeably improve. The houses look sturdier, many are covered in a protective layer of plaster, some have multiple floors. An exceptional few are covered in rectangular tiles of white, pink, or lime green. Against the dreary surroundings, these unexpected bursts of color appear almost fluorescent.

As you approach the city limits, the proximity of money and opportunity grows more apparent and the decorative flourishes more dramatic. Colored tiles become commonplace. All houses now have glass windows and some are tinted blue. A few megastructures – a convention center, a long distance bus depot, one or two under-construction, already-populated housing complexes – mark the transition from rural to urban. They raise the bar for ornamentation and initiate an open competition of architectural showmanship which quickly drowns out the landscape.

The homes of the most affluent farmers – many of whom now work in the city as builders or businessmen – shoot up to three or four stories. Though the basic plan remains the same, the houses suddenly sprout absurd additions – Greek columns, Dutch gables, emerald curtain wall from an office building, granite stairs from a hotel. On nearly every corner sit mounds of broken bricks covered in a thin layer of white dust like loaves of ciabatta bread. Now that everyone can afford tiles, their size, color, and arrangement becomes the focus. Some use tiny, multi-colored squares to create a kind of pixelated static; others create simple, bold gestures like candy cane swirls; others eschew tiles altogether and create elaborate patterns of alternating vertical and horizontal brick. The result is the architectural equivalent of a car show. Riding past feels like being lost in gingerbread land.

“Many farmers are also great craftsmen,” Wang Shu tells me when we meet one morning at the Academy of Arts. “In the countryside, almost all the houses are designed and constructed by the farmers themselves. Everybody is testing how to improve their houses. So, of course, there are many interesting things to find, because there are so many different tests going on.” I ask what role this rural testing ground is playing in China’s manic city building. Not much, he says. “The farmers can construct with stone, brick, tiles, bamboo… But in our modern construction systems, they have no chance to use their skills. So, in my design, I gave many chances to these craftsmen.”

His design is the Art Academy’s new Xiangshan campus, a complex of over twenty buildings situated around Xiangshan (Elephant Mountain), a tree-covered mound that sits at the site’s center. As a professor at the Academy, each term Wang leads groups of students into the rural areas of Zhejiang Province to study the fruits of farmers’ architectural experimentation. Insights from these trips have had a profound influence on Wang’s design, particularly in his adventurous use of recycled materials.

“More than 7 million pieces of old brick and tile were recycled for this campus,” he tells me with obvious pride. “People in China relate old things to poverty, so they have the passion to demolish everything and build new ones. But just because you destroyed something doesn’t mean it has no value.”

To prove this point, Wang and his collaborators set about collecting debris from demolition sites around Zhejiang and surrounding provinces. At the time, the area as in the throes of an orgy of destruction and construction that provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of historical wreckage. “I remember [when construction started] in 2003, when society found out we were using recycled materials, I started to receive calls from everywhere: ‘I have three million pieces of old material. Do you want to use it?’ At first we just took everything, even though we weren’t sure what to do with it.”

Wang’s eventual solution provides his campus with one of its most distinctive features, a sequence of walls and facades composed of irregularly shaped fragments cobbled together to form an extravagant, inconsistent whole. The technique is based on wa pan, a method developed by inhabitants of Zhejiang’s coast to cope with the destruction caused by the region’s annual typhoons. It is a system capable of accommodating a seemingly unlimited variety of source material, a system perfectly suited to the ill-fitting, mismatched debris that Wang had to work with. “I remember one time while we were researching in the countryside, I saw a very beautiful wall,” he says with still lingering wonder. “I asked my student to calculate how many different kinds of material had been used in a 4-square-meter area. He did and the result was crazy – 86 different kinds!”

The diversity on display on campus is less dramatic, but it’s scale is awesome. Wang says it’s difficult to say how long it took to assemble the largest wall, because so many trials were needed before construction could begin. “It was an experimental process, because the traditional construction techniques can’t automatically be applied to modern technical systems. My assistant and I studied [wa pan] and taught the techniques to the workers. At first they didn’t understand how to do it, so we did many small tests. It was a very interesting process: we showed them photos and drawings and discussed with them how to do it, and they did many different things, crazy things.”

Experimentation is at the heart of almost everything in the Xiangshan campus. For those accustomed to the Beaux-Arts campus model – this includes most college-educated Chinese – Wang Shu’s design is disorienting from the gate. The absence of a recognizable axis, the prominent, unmanicured presence of Elephant Mountain, the inconspicuous library, the inexplicable presence of goats… all emphatically state the author’s commitment to upending the prevailing university experience.

“In my campus, architecture is in the second position,” Wang explains. “In the first position is the mountain and the river… I designed the master plan according to China’s farming system, so space is divided precisely, but according to the natural layout. It creates a really different atmosphere from other campuses.”

Wang developed a range of architectural gestures to encourage engagement with the site’s natural elements, many of which give his buildings a wild, highly stylized appearance. The architecture department is a good example. The design consists of two rectangular boxes divided by a courtyard. The buildings are topped by sets of pointed, irregular slopes that resemble a child’s drawing of the ocean. Along the facade are undulating ferroconcrete staircases that lead… nowhere really. They ring the building and provide occasional opportunities for entrance, but are far too exhausting and inefficient to be considered viable means of circulation. Their purpose is instead to provide students with platforms from which to consider the mountain, river, and a man-made lake that runs into the courtyard. It is the sort of romantic concept that doesn’t necessarily translate to public architecture. When I visit the building, the staircases are largely empty. The students I do find are much more concerned with looking at and shouting to their classmates below than contemplating their smallness against the grandeur of the natural world. But, as Wang asserts repeatedly during our conversation, it is an experiment, the results of which can’t be decided by a single user or single visit.

To hear Wang speak about it, his designs are not so much buildings as instruments, and Xiangshan is not as much a campus as a laboratory. He is unambiguous about this intentions. “I think architecture can influence the educational system and method of teaching,” he says. “I think that, in these times, the most important thing is for people to be free to communicate with each other. So we tried to create spaces where communication will automatically happen. They can teach and learn in many places: they can teach on the roof or they can teach outside the building under a roof; they can teach at different levels of height or in a cave; they can teach on a flat floor or on a sloped floor. It gives you a very different feeling.”

Wang’s coercive designs provoke mixed reactions from students and faculty. “When they first moved into the campus at the end of last year,” he says, “many of the teachers were confused. For example, some classrooms are arranged on platforms. Every class can see each other, and the people can move freely from one to another. But many teachers have asked the dean to separate the rooms. ‘We can’t teach!’ they say.”

The negative feedback has in no way softened his resolve and, the campus now complete, Wang Shu talks of applying his approaches elsewhere. “The Chinese cultural tradition is an experience tradition,” he says. “If you’re discussing only logic, people can’t really believe it. But if you do something and show them, ‘This logic can produce something like this,’ then they can understand and have passion for doing it… Right now in China ‘new’ has same meaning as ‘money’. Newer means richer, so using old materials on buildings is a big challenge for people’s thinking. I started by building a small building, and I said, ‘See, it’s so beautiful like this!’ Then, gradually, they understand. I’ve built this campus, but the campus is also in a controlled environment. Now I think it’s important to let this experiment go out of the campus and into society.”

Many obstacles stand in his way. For the campus, Wang had the extreme luxury of a client, Academy President Xu Jiang, who gave him near total creative freedom. It’s hard to imagine that he will find anything like that level of trust among China’s risk averse bureaucrats and myopic real estate moguls. He mentions a museum project in Ningbo that applies some of the same recycling techniques used on campus. I ask if it is a difficult project and he says it is, but his reason surprises me. “Since 2007, it’s becoming more and more difficult, because the amount of available materials has reduced. The society has gradually understood that old buildings have value, so the amount that are demolished has dropped… which is a very good thing.”

Originally published in Architectural Digest 89 (May 2008)