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2012 Pritzker winner to lecture here Wednesday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2012 - One subject all of us need to know more about is the rich architectural heritage we share in this region. I’m glad to report  a little-known but important architectural connection was strengthened this week, and that is our connection to the internationally coveted Pritzker Prize for Architecture.

We have here an enduring and happy relationship with the Prize, the most important award an architect can receive in his or her field. Its winner for 2012 was announced Monday (Feb. 27, 2012). The Pritzker Prize has been likened to the Nobel Prize, and that is an apt comparison, for it is pre-eminent in the world of that creates our built environment. As is true of the Nobel prizes, the Pritzker focuses the light of the cultural world on recipients who not only have excelled in their work but also have  made public contributions to our collective knowledge and the global aesthetic and architectural ensemble.

This year’s winner is a Chinese architect, Wang Shu, 48, who will speak at Washington University in St. Louis at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday. He is the first Chinese architect to win the prize, and that is news in itself, a further indication of China’s growing importance and influence on the world stage, and an important reason we need to be much more aggressive in this region and the state with strengthening our ties with that vast land and its dynamic economy.

(I.M. Pei, who also won the prize, is of Chinese ancestry but is a U.S. citizen.)

Ten years ago, as China began emerging from its restrictive cultural conservatism and slumber, modernism was introduced, imposed and affected by Western architects and Western architectural thought. The rise to prominence of Wang Shu and his confident weaving together of the ancient and the traditional with the international avant-garde is a clear sign, a thrilling sign of aesthetic maturation.

The Hyatt Foundation gives the Pritzker Prize annually. The Pritzker family created it "to stimulate not only a greater public awareness of buildings, but also [to] inspire greater creativity in the architectural profession.”

Lord Palumbo, chairman of the Pritzker jury, said in a press release, “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. 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.”

Traditional Chinese buildings are extraordinarily beautiful, and the beauty of them is transmitted not by extravagant gestures or sheer mass but through a palpable modesty and humaneness of scale, as wekk as the distillation and refinement of form. Even in the grandeur of monumental buildings such as those that constitute the Forbidden Palace complex in Beijing, or in the massive Great Wall, there is an economy of scale entirely more modest than a comparable Western arrangement, such as the Palace of Versailles or the Vatican. Although all speak of power, luxury and grandeur, the Chinese version speaks with greater subtlety and, yes, with mystery.

Wang Shu’s firm is Amateur Architecture Studio, a name that might cause concern for a client who, before investing considerable capital in a building, would insist on professionalism. However, Wang says “amateur” refers to approach rather than to credentials – an approach based on spontaneity, craft skills and cultural tradition. His buildings, shown in a series of photographs at http://tinyurl.com/6pqula, demonstrate his virtuosic synthesis of traditional tone, form, materials and spirit with modernism, some of it borrowed from the great master innovator of international modernism, Le Corbusier, and reinterpreted in Wang Shu’s vocabulary.

Our regional connections to the Pritzker go back a half a century.

  • Washington University’s first – and quite rare – investment in modernist design is Steinberg Hall near the northwest corner of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. It was designed by Fumihiko Maki, who in the 1950s served on the faculty of the School of Architecture at Washington U. The building, with its distinctive origami-like roof, and its generous windows and broad porches, was dedicated in 1960 as the university’s art gallery and home to its department of art and archaeology. The building was Maki’s first commissioned building, and now is part of the larger Maki-designed Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Maki won the Pritzker Prize in 1993.
  • The first Pritzker Prize was awarded in 1979 and it went to the American architect Philip Johnson, who designed, in the mid-‘s70s, the early post-modernist General American Life Insurance Building at Eighth and Market Streets. It is now vacant.
  • The Japanese architect Tadao Ando won in 1995. Ando is architect of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts Building in Grand Center. In its 11-year history, the foundation building has established itself not only as a building of extraordinary serenity and beauty but as a landmark on the international architectural pilgrimage route.
  • In winter, 2002, the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt was teaching in WU’s Givens Hall as a visiting professor when his winning of the Pritzker Prize was announced. Interestingly, Murcutt’s spare, vernacular work exhibits an economy of style, a respect for craft and a deep, knowing sensitivity to the land that is quite similar in spirit and form to the “amateurism” of Wang Shu.

Wang’s lecture will be at 6:30 p.m. in the Maki-designed Steinberg Hall -- and it is, by the way, the Sam Fox School's annual Fumihiko Maki Lecture.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.