Made in China

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Stars do not illuminate Beijing’s sky at night. Instead there are the sparks of metal as builders weld steel to steel on the tops of high-rise towers. China’s construction workers are building rapidly. Yet more amazing is that they use homemade tools to construct some of the world’s most complex buildings. In China, the builder is the craftsman.
People refer to them as “peasants”, but with no disrespect. Labour is part of the essence of China’s architecture and, like the Great Wall, is testament to the value of its collective human endeavour. The Chinese mentality celebrates the use of mass labour – like no other country can – in marked contrast to a Western technocratic mentality. The West might ask: “Why hire a human to do a machine’s work?”  In China, the question is: “Why hire a machine when you can employ a man?”
Perhaps it is this sentiment which brought China the most coveted award in architecture – the Prizker Prize, “For one place, humanity is more important than architecture, while simple handicraft is more important than technology.” These are the words of Wang Shu, winner of the 2012 Prize, reaffirming China’s deep respect for the builder. With Wang Shu becoming the first Chinese man to win the Nobel Prize in Architecture, China’s role in the future of architectural ideas looks exciting, uncertain, and swiftly unfolding.
“Before 1997 there were almost no independent architectural practices in China,” reflects a thoughtful Wang Shu. He speaks of how the young architectural movement remains close to traditions in building, but like so many other Chinese traditions, is under threat in an age of relentless modernisation. “How can an architecture founded on craftsmanship survive in today’s world?” he asks.
The Pritzker Prize laureate is not alone in the struggle to reconcile tradition with modernity. Zhang Lei (AZL) and Liu Jiakun (Jiakun Architects), to name but two others, work with a similar celebration of craftwork. The use of red brick in their contemporary buildings lends them a sense of the past.
Liu Jiakun champions the idea of memory. His architectural vocabulary is thus perfectly suited to the numerous commissions he wins for museums, memorials and suchlike. The Sichuan Museum of Cultural Revolution, using red brick manufactured in the age-old method, positively exploits the material’s flaws and imperfections.
Zhang Lei also utilises masonry to express the communal effort in constructing the Yangzhou Community Centre. Yet again, the unassuming humble red brick is used with powerful effect, and seems far from exhausted of its aesthetic possibilities.
With the awarding of the Pritzker Prize the world has become aware of China’s importance to architecture, but such is the fashion with just about all of China’s endeavours. Every political controversy is observed, every Ai Wei Wei activism is reported; it might seem only natural that China’s architecture follows the success of its major contribution to contemporary art.
But where Ai Wei Wei bestrides the world with much fanfare, Wang Shu approaches his work with humility, and seems to be content to remain at home. “Architecture is just a small thing,” says the most recognised Chinese architect of today. “I would rather call myself an amateur architect.”
We are excited about the possibilities of a New movement coming from such gifted craftsmen in China. The work of these architects promises to redress the ongoing debate at the heart of architectural discourse: whether architecture should be anchored in tradition, or look only towards the future.
by Renyi Ng

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