Zhu Renmin is a self-taught architect who has made a significant impact on the landscape of contemporary China. Striving to recreate “harmony between man and earth,” Zhu’s theory and practice use architecture as an essential vehicle for the ecologies of the spirit, nature, and art, in a country after decades of breakneck economic growth has seen its environment and cultural heritage devastated. He applies an art-based design approach to large-scale architecture and landscape projects in underutilized and neglected sites in the public space of cities.
He has been able to create unexpected projects out of his unique visions, as in the cases of Hangzhou Grand Canal Gourmet Street and “Potala at the Sea” Mount Putuo Wharf. Throughout his career, often city governments seeking design solution to transform challenging eyesores and environmentally damaged sites would turn to Zhu for creative and practical solutions. Zhu would deliver artistic and practical solutions with deep roots in local historical and cultural contexts. His influence went beyond specific projects to have a direct impact on the urban planning of cities.
Born in the coastal province of Zhejiang as the grandson of one of the most famous Chinese artist of 20’s century Pan Tianshou, Zhu Renmin has studied traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy since childhood and has won China’s highest awards for artistic achievements in his early years. He had turned to architecture and landscape design as an ultimate form to practice his art and philosophy after a spiritual awakening moment as he lied in bed recovering from a paralyzing fall while working on a large brush ink painting. He decided to pursue a career as an ecological architect. At the time Zhu started to realize that the most important thing for human existence in the new century was to protect the ecology. So he would work in the natural landscape, creating interventions that marry ecology with built environment design, in a way that draws inspiration from Chinese philosophy, culture, and history, to reconnect human, human settlement, and earth, to create harmony amongst them.
Zhu chose architecture as a primary medium for his own artistic crusade as put forth in his own words, “ let architecture be the core; knead together landscape, sculpture, horticulture, literature, philosophy, and Zen; use the broadest scope of artistic manifestation to unite heart and object, form and spirit, human and nature, East and West.”
He told other architects “there is not a city in the world for which the structure and substance of building are more important than consideration for the ecologies of the spirit, nature, and culture.”
In the 1980s Zhu Renmin began working single-handedly towards fulfilling his vision, starting by purchasing the island of Putuo Lotus to rescue it from the local housing development system that planned to bulldoze the site and erect new buildings; a policy that by now has led to the disappearance of hundreds of islands in China. This formidable project of art and faith-based architectural and landscape rendering was soon followed by several major architectural projects: a section of China’s Grand Canal along the river Shengli in downtown Hangzhou was transformed from being an open-air sewer to a celebrated cultural and commercial landmark ; Mount Putuo Wharf where the enormous barren cliffs located in front of the Mount Putuo dock was transformed into a functioning transition center and a gathering place for the general public, including millions of visitors going to Mount Putuo, one of the most sacred places of pilgrimage in Buddhism in Asia, every year.
In 1996 Zhu became dean and research director of the Landscape and Architecture Design Institute at the China Academy of Art, where he had taught and influenced a generation of architects and landscape designers in China. He is currently Director of the Joint Research Center for Ecological Restoration at Zhejiang University, where he is often found advising city governments on urban planning and architectural projects around the country with a cross-disciplinary team from the university.
In the 1980s Zhu Renmin started to build the discipline of human ecological restoration, pioneering the aesthetic concepts of “saving the environment through art” and the theory of “spiritual, natural, and cultural ecologies.” For over three decades, he has toiled to rehabilitate the most forsaken of landscapes destroyed by man: barren beaches, deserted islands, denuded cliffs, polluted canals, desert by the Yellow River, deteriorating water village and highways. Zhu Renmin has written numerous articles and books on art based ecological restoration through the built environment; completed ecological architecture and landscape projects worth RMB 100 billion; his architectural and landscape design work had helped cities to improve the environment, boost economic growth and employment, and preserve local cultural heritage.
In 2012, Zhu was named “Architect of the Year” by China International Architectural Biennial(CIAB), backed by Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Culture of China. In 2013, Zhu became the Featured Artist at United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; “Golden Autumn” (Jin Qiu) on permanent display at FAO headquarters Flag Room, “Saving the Environment Through Art” was the first exhibition held at FAO headquarters honoring the individual artist.
“Dedicated to Master Zhu Renmin, the Leonardo da Vinci of China.” Alberto Michelini, senior adviser to the United Nations (G8), wrote when he visited the Zhu Renmin Art Museum in Zhejiang University in 2012. Giovanni Cutolo, Chair of the European Golden Compass Award (ADI Compasso D’ORO) said in 2014 when he visited Zhu’s “Potala at the Sea Mount Putuo Wharf” in Zhoushan, China said, “The Pritzker Prize is not enough to recognize the work of Zhu Renmin. He ought to have an international prize named after himself.” Presentation of the Zhu Renmin Ecological Art Award at the Art, Ecology, and Economy International Forum, 2015 Milan Expo, was held in Milan’s Royal Palace and jointly organized by Italy state senate, Comune di Milano, Verona city government, Italy national artists Association. Cristina Tajani, Chief of the Milan Cultural Bureau, offered congratulations on behalf of the government. This award, the first of its kind to be named after a Chinese artist, was formally put into effect in February 2017 by Gabriele Altobelli, chair of the Italian Association of Artists.
An artist and changemaker at heart, Zhu Renmin chose to put his work and experience and his mastery of literature, painting, sculpture, and calligraphy at the service of his country China and to the humanity at a critical moment to make an impact on the built environment and urban planning in modern China. China has 18% of world’s total population today and has seen the world’s most rapid urbanization past 3 decades since Zhu ventured into the field of architecture and urban planning from a studio artist--almost 500 million rural Chinese people moved into cities over the last 35 years. Over the years Zhu Renmin has also invested over RMB 50 million of his own funds into charitable funds and founded a number of services for spiritual ecology and free education, while in most days he still sleeps on a camp bed in his studio.
Zhu Renmin has chosen the architecture and landscape design as primary tools to continue his creative journey. He moved art out of the ivory tower so that the public may enjoy and use it. He brought traditional Chinese painting into the contemporary period and expanded its use to design plans and architectural projects.