at the 2018 venice architecture biennale, UNESCO, the bartlett school of architecture, and donald insall associates hosted a discussion titled ‘heritage as ultimate freespace’. the conversation, which was chaired by bartlett professor alan penn, questioned how a city like venice can preserve its world heritage status while thriving as a contemporary working community. in light of this year’s biennale theme, the talk also asked how the italian city’s heritage lends itself to being a ‘freespace’.


one of the panelists is no stranger to preservation and conservation. chinese architect wang shu has long been fascinated with the themes, building a body of work that earned him the pritzker prize in 2012. designboom sat down with wang shu after the discussion to learn more about the architect’s approach, and what he thinks is the biggest challenge facing architects today. read the interview in full below.

wang shu interview
ningbo history museum, 2003-2008, ningbo, china
image © lv hengzhong (also main image)



designboom (DB): generally speaking, what should an architect’s approach to conservation be?


wang shu (WS): I think there are two different kinds of architects. one kind is totally modern, which means they don’t think that past things have meaning, and they start with totally new things — no history. the other kind of architects, when they do a design, understand that something has existed there. this is a totally different feeling.


with historic heritage, people normally talk about old buildings or old areas. for me, it is not just about the ‘old’. it just means something past that still has meaning. for me, these are very important things — everything has historic heritage. maybe architects can create some new things, but it is similar to an old tree that has new growth. this doesn’t mean you should kill the old trees!

wang shu interview
san-he residence at the sifang art museum | image © sifang art museum
read more about the project on designboom here



DB: do you think that cities, particularly historic cities, are losing their identity? or do you think that identity is constantly evolving?


WS: I think if you have real meaning in your life, you have identity. identity is not something simple. this is why I talk about truth and true reality. this is something that is common in your life and that has meaning to you. this is why we should do some new inventions in our lives. this is the meaning of creation to me.

wang shu interview
‘decay of a dome’ at the 2010 venice architecture biennale | image © designboom
read more about the project on designboom here



DB: you have previously mentioned that you think venice has some successful elements that have been preserved. how does it contrast with parts of china?


WS: I think that venice is a very good example of success compared to the situation in china. venice is successful because it keeps the buildings, the environment, and even the people’s lives — there is still a very clear identity of venice. for example, every year at the biennale some new things happen here. many people meet here, and for the architects and those involved it is more similar to a festival! every ten minutes you meet old friends, and it is a very good feeling. this is real life and you have life here.


I also find that maybe there are some problems. venice is quite large, and there are many buildings here, but only the tourist area is very ‘hot’. I don’t know what the feeling of the local people is, but maybe if I stay here for at least one month I would know! if you are really doing some work with historic heritage, you need a different way of working. some architects, maybe with office in milan or some other place, come to venice for two or three days to research and then they go back. it is a totally different feeling. you should stay in one place for a long enough time to really know what the real things are.

wang shu interview
wang shu documented the preservation of traditional chinese villages at the 2016 venice biennale
read more about the project on designboom here



DB: how difficult do you think it is to balance the needs of the local community with tourism for a successful city? is there anything architects can do to help bridge the divide?


WS: I think architects can do something, but they can’t do everything. they can create some conditions. for example, they can help people meet — not just tourists, but also local people. I call this the ‘amphitheater’ concept: you design something, and then you find that something will happen there.

designboom interviews wang shu on historic heritage, identity, and long-term planning
portrait of wang shu | image © designboom



DB: how important is it that there is a long term plan for a city, rather than a short term fix?


WS: in fact, I don’t believe in long term planning. I just know that long term means one event after another one! everyone moves into some surprise. it’s life, we don’t have a long term plan for our lives. you don’t even know if your wife is leaving forever!


DB: what do you think is the biggest challenge for architects at this time?


WS: I think the biggest challenge for architects is to get back to real life. we are still in academic thinking too much. we should get back to real life — real social life.