The award of a top national science prize last week to Wu Liangyong, a mainland architect and conservationist, came with bittersweet irony as there is still public dismay over last year's demolition of the former residence of Wu's mentor, architect Liang Sicheng . But the recognition of Wu with the State Top Scientific and Technological Award is bringing attention to a pioneer who laid much of the groundwork for heritage conservation, at a time when architects and urban designers are ever more marginalised in city planning. News of a state-run developer's demolition of Liang's courtyard home - a hutong located in Beijing's Dongcheng district - broke last month, setting off a huge public outcry, as the site had been designated for protection two years ago. The 90-year old Wu, who received the top honour from President Hu Jintao on Tuesday, said that the area, as part of the old Chinese capital, would not have been demolished if a better conservation mechanism had been in place. 'I was very concerned over the fate of the courtyard house and the Beibu hutong because I still feel a deep attachment to Mr Liang and his wife, Lin Huiyin,' Wu told The Beijing News. Wu, a native of Nanjing in Jiangsu province, was recruited by Liang in 1946 as an assistant to help him found the Department of Architecture at the prestigious Tsinghua University. He returned to Tsinghua after graduating from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, US, with a master's degree in architecture and urban design in 1949. Under the mentorship of Liang in the 1950s and 1960s, Wu was able to participate in and take the lead on many of the architectural landmarks built since the start of the People's Republic, including the Great Hall of the People and the famed Changan Avenue in Beijing. After the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Wu shifted his interests to the notion of 'generalised architecture', a field of study which regards architectural design as part of human habitat development. The concept was epitomised in many of the later projects Wu led, including sustainability studies of human settlements in ecologically fragile western parts of Yunnan province in 1998. This so-called generalised architecture also laid the foundation for 'human settlement science', an innovative approach to urban planning that Wu founded in 1993 and has championed ever since. Wu was also credited with drafting the Beijing Charter for the 20th World Congress of Architects in June 1999. But it was a pilot redevelopment project that Wu and his team undertook at an old Beijing hutong between 1978 and 1987 that won him international fame. The Ju'er Hutong Courtyard Housing Project, which was honoured in 1993 with a World Habitat Award by the British-based Building and Social Housing Foundation, pioneered a new approach to urban renewal in the heart of Beijing. It allowed unique courtyard homes to be restored and improved, avoiding wholesale demolition of historic but dilapidated inner-city areas. The experiment involving the Ju'er Hutong neighbourhood in downtown Beijing turned many near-dilapidated hutongs into two- or three-storey units within the original courtyard and hutong layout, giving dwellers the same green, quiet environment and a socially cohesive community life. 'It retained the same feeling of a traditional way of life in a new living environment,' Wu said. However, that project, which Wu hoped would serve as a model for later development of ancient city blocks, has been largely snubbed by bureaucrats, as well as developers, who are focused on profits and economic growth. Xu Wei, a veteran urban designer in Shanghai, said there is a stark contrast between the recognition that people such as Wu receive at award ceremonies and how little say they are given in actual decision-making involving urban planning. 'On many occasions, people with the know-how are pressured by bureaucrats to compromise their designs [in the interest of raising GDP], or in order to appease those with power,' Xu said. But Xu said the fact that Wu could win a top science award for his achievements in urban design and architecture, a non-traditional field of science, would certainly raise the profile of his works and usher in broader discussions for better urban-planning policies. 'An individual can hardly change [the way urban planning is conducted] without a sound policy, and such a policy can come into being only with broader participation from the public,' Xu said.