Interview with Wang Shu, Amateur Architecture Studio

Wang Shu recounts the idea behind Decay of a Dome, back to architecture's origins and back to Chinese tradition, in the name of sustainability.

Can you tell us about your installation here at the Arsenale?
It stems from my research in recent years. I have been thinking about new things. My work has always influenced other Chinese architects but focused on high-rise structural systems using concrete, which makes them heavy. I wanted to look into the traditional Chinese habitat and found some interesting things. For example, there is no basement, they didn't destroy the land and the building is very light. It can be constructed fast but is good quality and there is a clear architectural principle behind it. So, I conducted research into light structures. Maybe it will give Chinese architecture a new direction. This structure is the result of my research.

What was your answer to the theme of this year's Biennale, "People Meet in Architecture"?
I don't believe that architecture is just about the works, as in art. It is also the construction process. People live in fine houses but they learn nothing about architecture unless they are professional architects, even when they have the chance to do so during the construction process. So, I had this idea. This structure adopts a very clear and simple principle: one principle and sticks all the same size; it is a small, everyday material but many people working together can build a huge space. This particular space is about 15 metres in circumference and approximately four metres high. Ten people working together could finish it in one day. Here, we had just three people and they finished it in three days, so it is a very exciting process. It is about people working together to construct something – that is the meaning of architecture. Today, architecture is too professional and there is too much digital design. I think architecture should go back to its origins.

Did you choose wood for this installation because it is a traditional Chinese material?
Wood is a traditional Chinese architectural material and this structure is an architectural prototype. It is a dome but there are no domes in Chinese history. They are a Western architectural form but this structure is not Western. It is very similar to traditional Chinese architectural structures, made with simple wood sticks and a simple fixing system. This one is simpler than traditional Chinese architecture because the sticks are not fixed together. They are simply placed on each other and their rectangular shape and gravity do the rest. I used window fasteners just for safety but they weren't necessary. Another issue is how to keep tradition alive. If you keep tradition unchanged, it will die. If you simply copy tradition, it will also die. There has to be creative input. I think that you can keep tradition alive in this world by combining traditional principles and modern techniques. This is very important for real life. We should keep some things from the past, not just the new. It is crucial to keep things from the past.

But China seems to be taking another direction and destroying its past...
This applies especially to China. In China, we have demolished more than 90% of our traditional buildings in the past 20 years in cities and towns alike. It is a disaster and we have no future if we do not care about tradition. The future is not all science and hi-tech.

Beside this special mention, you have also just won an important prize from the Schelling Foundation...
It is for my work over the past ten years. I started afresh after the year 2000. I started thinking about the situation in China, about tradition in China and the future. I was especially concerned about the disaster of traditional buildings being knocked down everywhere. It produced a large amount of waste material so I used lots of recycled materials in my buildings, not just in small experiments but in large-scale projects such as school campuses, museums and a huge public building. But I am giving people time to embrace my ideas. It is very important to focus on recycling and sustainability. Then, there is the Chinese culture. We have to think long and hard about it. It is not just about doing popular things. In China, everything is popular now but, if that is all they do, the Chinese culture will die and it is coming very close. I think raising this awareness is the purpose of my work and the jury of the Shelling award knew that. China is a huge country that is developing very fast and increasingly influencing the rest of the world. If it does not take the right path, it will be disastrous for the whole world. It needs to do some serious thinking and take action. When people ask about the meaning of my work, I say that I may not be perfect but my message is that in China the impossible can become possible.

What comes next after the Biennale?
Next, I don't know. For this exhibition I received an email after a lecture asking whether I was interested in participating in this exhibition and, if so, to send a brief outline and sketch. I sent both and received the OK to get started. We had numerous clear and precise exchanges on the idea. For example, they said they would include two columns, which was a good idea. I think they add meaning to this work which I have called the "Decay of a Dome". There is a cultural issue. The dome is based on a precise principle but I had it built high and you start to get disorder at the base when it reaches a certain height. This is interesting culturally because the Chinese have no problem accepting this disorder but it is not the same for the Western world.

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