Where is the difference in the Chinese and Western view of the relationship between architecture and nature? After his visit to the Oslo Architecture Triennale in 2010, 2012 Pritzker Prize laureate Wang Shu wrote this short essay for Arkitektur N.
It must be a misunderstanding to consider Chinese architectural cultural tradition as completely different to western architectural cultural tradition. In my view, there are only slight differences between them. These differences are vital, but using the terms “western” and “Chinese” tends to simplify the problem, and on a basic philosophical level, there are some important differences.
In the west, architecture has achieved its independent position by facing nature; but in Chinese culture, nature was always much more important than architecture. Architecture was more like an artificial natural substance. People tried to learn from nature in order for their life to return to a status that was quite close to nature. This has also always been the ideal of the Chinese intellectual, which emerges in the fact that the Chinese buildings are always given a humble position on every natural site.
"In China, architecture was more like an artificial natural substance."
The whole construction system of Chinese architecture does not pay much attention to the eternal stability of human society, but rather to the pursuit of natural evolution. This is also the reason for the choice of natural materials in Chinese buildings, and the reason why the way of construction aims to prevent destroying nature. I am especially fond of the more complicated and exquisite status of the Chinese Garden, which is also constructed under the influence of this ideal. The garden is not simply an imitation of nature; it is also a half-natural, half-artificial construction product that resulted from the learning of natural codes, from the transformation of wisdom and poetic thoughts and a conversation with nature. In Chinese Gardens, there is an integral and inseparable relationship between the urban, architecture and nature with poetry and painting. In western architectural culture, nature and buildings are separated in a simple way. Nature is lovely, but always considered as dangerous. Sverre Fehn once expressed in an interview that “Norwegians love nature in a direct and simple way”; perhaps in Norwegian culture, there is not such a philosophy of opposition to nature.
The reason why I am pursuing a contemporary localized Chinese architecture is that I never believed in the existence of a single world. In fact, under the current circumstances of a full collapse of architectural tradition in China, I put more emphasis on the self-evaluation of life values. So the scope of my research does not restrict itself in the pursuit of new architecture, but also engages in the reconstruction of the natural and poetic living environment. But of course, it is inevitable that we adopt western architecture, for today the construction system is totally westernized, and the problems we face for example in urbanization could not be solved by the ways of Chinese traditional architecture. We need the construction of huge structures and skyscrapers, complicated urban traffic systems and infrastructure, the mainstream of steel and concrete construction system. But our architectural scope should be more liberated. My scope is wider and freer. For example, I go beyond the modern western abstract conception of architecture and converse with the real existing diversity and architectural variation. And my attitude towards Chinese traditional architecture is the same.
"The reason why I am pursuing a contemporary localized Chinese architecture is that I never believed in the existence of a single world."
I think no matter whether you are Chinese or western, our worldview today needs to be criticized and reconsidered. Otherwise, we could only envisage the architecture of the future pessimistically based on the facts of the situation we are facing right now. I believe that architecture needs to return to a naturally evolving status. We’ve experienced too much revolution and abrupt change. Architecture used to be ecological both in China and in the west; and today the common problem we are facing is ecological. Architecture needs to learn from tradition, not only on the levels of concept and construction, but also in a way of ecological living, which in China have been devalued for more than a century. The fast development in China has sacrificed too much of resources and of the environment.
"And if tradition is dead, I believe that we will have no future."
In my view, the architecture of the future will be a complex integration of urbanity, buildings, nature, poetry and arts. All the substances that are too huge today will disintegrate. Of course we have to take into account of the basic construction problems, but we have to figure out ways to combine the application of traditional materials with modern technology. During this process, the improvement of traditional technology is more important. This is the reason that I widely apply handcraft with modern steel and concrete structural systems. The craftsmen know the techniques, which are a living tradition. If they are no longer used, or just imitated in form, tradition is doomed. And if tradition is dead, I believe that we will have no future.