BEIJING » It is a winter day in China’s smoggy capital, and Wu Liangyong is wondering what went wrong.
For 70 years, Wu has ridden out the country’s political storms, including one that killed his mentor, to establish himself as the most influential architect, urban planner and iminence grise of China’s cities. But looking out the window of his apartment in the city’s northern suburbs, he can only shake his head at the dim building emerging from the haze.
"Our environment is unfit for daily life, and the responsibility is very heavy on our shoulders," he said. "The problem will be solved sooner or later; it’s just a question of the price we will pay."
Now 92, Wu has responded to the growing problems of China’s great cities by publishing a new master plan for the capital area, hoping to promote his longstanding idea of linking it with neighboring Tianjin and the smaller cities of Hebei province. It is an idea he has pushed for 25 years, but it now has strong government backing after the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, endorsed it last year. Wu has also been the subject of two recent museum retrospectives, and continues to play the role of arbiter of major projects.
"He’s a towering figure in China’s urban planning and architectural education, absolutely pivotal," said Frederick Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, who has studied China’s architectural history. "He seems to have endless energy."
Indeed, Wu’s career is a testament to his willpower. In the 1940s, he was one of the youngest — and now one of the few surviving — members of a generation of Chinese intellectuals to be trained abroad before the communist takeover in 1949. He studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and also helped found Tsinghua University’s architecture school with modern China’s most famous architect and urban planner, Liang Sicheng.
What followed were several decades of turmoil, which saw Liang hounded to death in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution. Wu had worked closely with Liang, learning the value of cultural preservation and the need to be fully conversant in Chinese and foreign ideas. Even now Wu gamely carries out conversations with foreign visitors in what he modestly calls his "frozen English," and he has championed scholarly exchanges between Tsinghua and the West.
"He really knew East and West; it wasn’t just superficial," Wu said of Liang. "Even today, few Chinese architects can understand it like he did."
After the era of radical Maoism ended in the late 1970s, Wu’s career revived. He wrote numerous books on architecture and participated in several key projects, including a much-loved redevelopment of the Ju’er Hutong in old Beijing and museum projects across the country. He also gave his imprimatur to several controversial government projects, such as a recently opened canal to siphon off water from China’s south to supply northern China’s thirsty cities.
In the public sphere, Wu represents a traditionalist view of architecture that has been regaining sway in recent years. Most prominently, he criticized many of Beijing’s showpiece structures built for the 2008 Olympics, especially Rem Koolhaas’ headquarters for China Central Television. Wu said he still believes this was a mistake, and recently Xi has endorsed this, too, calling for an end to "weird" architecture.
"For Koolhaas, it’s understandable. He wanted to build a masterpiece in Beijing," Wu said. "But for Beijing, it was a tragedy. Old cities have to be respected more."
These views have made Wu controversial among younger architects, said Peter G. Rowe, a professor of architecture at Harvard University. "I think he’s dead wrong about Koolhaas, but we agree to disagree," Rowe said.
Wu’s influence comes from his unofficial position as "grand master," or dashi, a virtually unassailable position in Chinese society that comes with accomplishment and age. Indeed, younger scholars almost uniformly refused to discuss Wu because he is seen as so influential in the field, able to promote and derail careers or major projects because of his political connections.
Shortly before taking a break to meet a reporter, for example, he was given a half-hour presentation by architects wanting to build a giant Ferris wheel on the Olympic green next to the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium. "Master Wu, please endorse our project," they pleaded, as Wu sat impassively next to an assistant taking notes.
His current role would have been hard to imagine a few years ago. In 2008, he suffered a serious stroke and spent a year and a half in a hospital and convalescent home, reteaching himself to stand, walk and hold a Chinese writing brush. He succeeded, and his home is now filled with new works of calligraphy and ink-wash sketches — the sort of traditional skills younger architects can rarely master.
In 2013, the National Art Museum of China held a major retrospective of his drawings and watercolors, and the entire show has been converted into a free app. Then, late last year, he was given a one-man show at the National Museum of China, the gargantuan symbol of state power on Tiananmen Square. Wu gave the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, a private showing.
Despite these state honors and his proximity to power, Wu is widely seen as a counterweight to the Communist Party officials who wield almost unchecked power at the local level to redesign cities.
"Urban growth in China is more engineered by bureaucrats than designed by professionals," said Samuel Liang, a professor at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, and author of a recent book on Chinese urban planning. "He represents the hope of Chinese academics and professionals to become more independent from the bureaucrats."
Wu said his role makes him feel personally responsible for problems in Chinese cities. When the Cultural Revolution ended, Wu said, Chinese officials rushed to embrace foreign models, sometimes without considering their suitability for an industrializing country with more than 1 billion inhabitants. Mistakes included promoting automobile ownership over public transportation, and building enormously wide streets and huge buildings.
"We knew about the ‘London Fog,’ but didn’t know it would come upon us so quickly," he said of the famous London pollution of the mid-20th century. "China still can have a very good future, but we have to face the problems now."
The solution, he says, is to promote a deeper understanding of China’s own cultures, which is also a priority of Xi. For millenniums, Chinese have designed cities and buildings according to human scale, Wu said. These ideas should underlie China’s new cities.
"I still have the confidence that if we understand the principles, we can easily solve the problems," he said. "But if you don’t know the principles, it’s like the smog outside."
Ian Johnson, New York Times