How Do You Translate Pritzker into Mandarin?

- February 29, 2012

“Chinese architect Wang Shu wins architecture’s top prize...”

First there was Zhaha Hadid, the Iraqi architect who broke into the all boys club of honorees of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture as the first woman to win; then there was Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who bridged the Asia gap and now Wang Shu, representing China.

Wang, whose buildings in rapidly-developing China honor the past with salvaged materials even as they experiment with modern forms, has been awarded the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Since the Chinese place their last name first in various settings, for the remainder of this post I will refer to this honored individual by his last name of Wang.

Yes, of course, I know there was a Chinese-born architect before Wang to win the Pritzker – I.M. Pei, who won in 1984. But his work has been as American (and international) as apple pie, with projects like L'Enfant Plaza Hotel and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, the John F. Kennedy Library in Massachusetts and Dallas City Hall. And there were the 10 years Pei spent working with Bill Zeckendorf, who built many of the buildings that helped to define New York’s skyline and who now lives here with his wife Nancy with whom he brought the Lensic back from the grave. However, Wang is the first Chinese citizen to win the prize and the fourth-youngest recipient.

The selection of Wang, 48, is an acknowledgment of “the role that China will play in the development of architectural ideals,” said Thomas J. Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the prize, in his announcement of the winner on Monday.

“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,” the jury said in its citation. “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.”

The prize, founded in 1979 by Jay A. Pritzker and his wife, Cindy, to honor a living architect, consists of a $100,000 grant and a bronze medallion, which this year will be awarded at a ceremony in Beijing on May 25.

Mr. Wang’s major projects are all in China, including two in Ningbo, a coastal city south of Shanghai: the Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum, completed in 2005, and the Ningbo Historic Museum, completed in 2008, which includes recycled architectural materials from the area,

Of this work the Pritzker jury said: “it is one of those unique buildings that while striking in photos, is even more moving when experienced. The museum is an urban icon, a well-tuned repository for history and a setting where the visitor comes first.”

In designing the Xingshan Campus of the China Academy of Art in his native Hangzhou, Mr. Wang also reused materials, covering the campus buildings with more than two million tiles from demolished traditional houses.

“Everywhere you can see, they don’t care about the materials,” Mr. Wang said in an interview. “They just want new buildings, they just want new things. I think the material is not just about materials. Inside it has the people’s experience, memory – many things inside. So I think it’s for an architect to do something about it.”

“Wang Shu’s oeuvre, seen in depth by the jurors during a visit to China, left no doubt that we were witnessing the work of a master,” said Lord Palumbo, the Pritzker’s chairman.