After designing the award-winning “Absolute World” towers, he rose to global fame at just 30 years of age. This wunderkind of an architect would go on to claim numerous prominent international architecture awards with his visionary and futuristic designs, including many for the “Harbin Grand Theatre”. Hand-picked by Star Wars creator George Lucas, he defeated an elite crowd of world-class architects and secured the rights to design the “Lucas Museum of Narrative Art”. He is none other than—Ma Yansong. Originally from Beijing, Ma has become the epitome of contemporary architecture in China. In 2019, ten important design models by MAD Architects, a company founded by Ma, were selected by the Centre Pompidou in France as part of its permanent curation and showcased in a special year-long exhibition (the “MAD X”) beginning in April. This milestone marks a notable achievement in Ma’s prolific career.
From the unsymmetrical structures of the Beijing landmark “Chaoyang Park Plaza”, or the Sci-Fi-esque look of “Hutong Bubble 32” that emanates childlike innocence, to the “Pingtan Art Museum” situated on an island within an island that appears as if it is on the brink of detachment from the mainland, no matter which building you set your eyes on, his works are certainly a sight to behold, evoking in its admirers a sense of surrealism bordering on insanity. These architectural feats weren’t built in the shallow pursuit of technological breakthrough or as mere stylistic tours de force; in fact, Ma’s designs, bold and avant-garde as they seem, are informed by the laws of nature and deeply rooted in his own cultural identity. He is devoted to the exploration of design vocabulary that inspires the communion between architecture and the environment and the coexistence of buildings and the metropolis.
Ma’s architectural style is nothing but revolutionary. Now that the MAD X exhibition, an agglomeration of 10 years of hard work, is in full swing, Perspectives—The Golden Pin Design Awards’ blog about designs created for and within huaren (Chinese-speaking) communities—joins forces with A Meeting with Architects—a docuseries produced by i-talk podcasts in mainland China—to present a special interview with the world-renowned Chinese architect in which we discuss his design philosophy and future explorations.
Architecture, Informed by Nature
Ma’s designs often feature organic curves that grace the architecture with a fluid look. However, at the core of his design philosophy lies not the pursuit of artistic excellence but a deep reflection on the interconnectedness of human life, architecture, urbanization, and natural environment. This was how “Shan Shui City” (or “city of mountains and waters”) came into existence.
Well versed in both eastern and western architectural styles and having witnessed the many transformations that Beijing and other cities in China underwent, Ma never stops questioning the society’s obsession with modernism. In his eyes, the overemphasis on homogeneity and functionalism in the industrialized world has rendered modern cities spiritless and soul-crushing, which is why he finds great resonance with Qian Xuesen’s idea of “Shan Shui City” proposed in 1990 by the scientist.
According to Ma, Qian’s proposal was a criticism on the superficial nature of modernization in China that was essentially a copy-and-paste duplication of a western facade. People were quick to forsake the beauty of traditional Chinese cities in exchange for bleak, shoddy concrete jungles. Therefore, Qian envisioned a “Shan Shui City” where the spirits of traditional culture and the aesthetics of artistic conception come together. Ma concurs with Qian in that, be it cities or buildings, architecture is never as simple as functional creations. Designers should consider the interaction between human beings and the environment. For more than a decade, Ma has held onto this belief and has been walking the walk, or rather, Qian’s walk, hoping to realize this romantic and poetic dream in his own way.
For Ma, the idea of “shan shui” is but a starting point, a spiritual theme, and not just a faithful reproduction of the actual formal or visual qualities of nature. That is, he blends architecture with the environment and reconnects human beings with nature not by expressing explicitly the idea of nature, but by letting people experience it emotionally for themselves. The tight integration of architecture-nature-people draws from traditional Chinese architectural beliefs. A prime example is the “Taiping Lake Apartments” in Huangshan. The shapes and lines of each story are in line with the contours of the hills where they are situated. The magnificent scenery, unique from every angle, together with the long-winding Huangshan mountain range, paints a picture of harmony. Indeed, the apartments have become an inseparable part of the local landscape and geography.
In “Chaoyang Park Plaza,” every man-made object in the city was “naturalized”. The main buildings are high-rise structures that resemble tall, smooth rock faces towering over the water. Through the “borrowed scenery” technique (incorporating background scenery into landscape design) commonly employed in traditional Chinese gardens, Ma blurs the line between the park and the city itself, allowing nature to extend outwards organically. Another instance is the “Harbin Grand Theatre”. In all the natural grandeur of Songhua River sits a mighty mountain-like structure, as if covered in gleaming white snow. At first glance, the structure might seem somewhat surreal and out of place, but its silk-like curvature seamlessly merges the structure with the frozen horizon of the north, as if the building itself has broken the ice and risen from the ground.
The idea of “constructing nature” turns architecture into landscape and incorporates functionality into nature. However, Ma explains that what’s more important than man-made nature is the “considerations of people’s feelings towards their surroundings in this world.” He thinks of “nature” not as a concrete object but a spiritual and emotional atmosphere in which people can find their inner peace and inner strengths, an appeal that has long existed in literature, paintings, music, and arts. However, ever since the industrial revolution, modern architecture and urban planning has invariably leaned towards materialism and functionalism. Lost in the concrete jungle are the emotional conversations that take place in our daily lives.
“If you, too, believe that architecture can move people the same way that art does, you’d think about design with emotions,” says Ma of Chinese architectural designs, which value the expression of true feelings “probably because it is deeply rooted in our own personal culture.” They are distinct from western aesthetics that emphasizes rationalism and logic.
Painting the Picture for an Ideal Future City
Soon after returning to Beijing in 2004, Ma realized that new buildings are rapidly replacing traditional ones in this city of rich history. While citizens were busy debating issues of urban renewal and architectural development for the upcoming Beijing Olympics in 2008, Ma and his team had already proposed “Beijing 2050,” the imagining of a future city, at the 2006 Venice Biennale in Italy. The proposal includes revamping Tiananmen Square into a cultural center and the lungs of the city, constructing a Sci-Fi-esque “Floating Island” right above the central business district, and reinvigorating the city’s capillary network of alleys with “Future Hutong”. It is Ma’s hope that these three forward-looking and imaginative designs can open the door for public discussion on the preparation for the future of the rapidly developing Beijing.
When asked whether he is sticking with the utopian ideology of “Beijing 2050,” he quips, “of course!” He then concedes, with a hearty laugh, that now he only has 30 more years to make the dream a reality. “Floating Island” has been partially implemented during the micro-city landscape renovation in 2009. He recounts the events on the eve of the Beijing Olympics when the atmosphere of national unity and prosperity pervaded the entire country. “I’ve always felt like the whole process was devoid of ‘humanity’.”
Ma decided to start from a small scale, focusing on human-community relationship. Mindful of the complicated layout and the lack of public infrastructure in the old town, he enclosed public restrooms and civic facilities in curved metal surfaces and incorporated them in the form of “bubbles” at various corners of the city. Completely immersed in their surroundings, these “hutong bubbles” reflect the blue sky, the lush greenery, and the timeless alleys, presenting a picture of the past, the present, and the future. On the basis of preserving traditions, Ma hopes that such simple, easily replicable designs can act as a reminder of the importance of everyday living quality and as a catalyst for reconstructing community living. He tells us that since he began his career as an architect, he has never held a project as close to his heart as the hutong bubbles.
From large-scale projects like theatres, city parks, and museums to micro-level urban reimagining such as the hutong bubbles, the central theme remains constant—Ma’s vision of a utopian city for the future. “A lot of times architects would base their designs on criticisms. The truth is, they notice all the problems and they treat them very seriously. This is what sets us apart from artists—they magnify the problem and make the public aware of the issues, but it is up to us, the architects, to fix them.” Speaking of the many problems remaining to be solved, he lets out a laugh. “To create the future, architects must be the ones that have a firm belief in themselves,” says an optimistic Ma, as he always has been.
Ma has never stopped practicing what he preaches. He envisions a brand-new, humanity-oriented urban civilization and sets out to accomplish it through exploring the marriage of urban density and functionality with the poetic imagery of natural splendors, re-establishing the channel for emotional communication between mankind and Mother Nature. “I believe I feel passionate about architecture because it is an embodiment of cultural heritage. Through architecture, a culture can speak to people’s heart and even influence another culture.” His insistence on finding answers in his own personal culture does not mean he is bound by conventions or nostalgia. Instead, he endeavors to pioneer a new path with inspirations from eastern philosophies in order to tackle present and future challenges faced by all humankind.
Ma says that such beliefs are also the source of his day-to-day “self-anxiety” whether in designing western- or eastern-style buildings. He urges the current generation to contemplate this ubiquitous issue: in a world of rapid urbanization and technological advances, “what value can our culture bring to the world?” For a forward-looking huaren architect, this issue certainly provides ample food for thought.
Ma Yansong, is the first interviewee of A Meeting with Architects. The producer followed MA Yansong to Paris, witnessing the highlight moments of his permanent collection exhibition in the Center Pompidou.
About Ma Yansong
Born in Beijing in 1975, Ma Yansong graduated from Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture and received his master’s degree in architecture from Yale University. Having worked under Zaha Hadid in London and Peter Eisenman in New York, Ma returned to Beijing and founded his own architecture/design firm “the MAD Architects” in 2004. He led the team in designing a series of notable buildings. The “Absolute World” towers, “Beijing 2050,” “Hutong Bubble 32,” the “Ordos Museum,” among others, have garnered attention from the industry and took home numerous prizes. In 2010, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awarded him an honorary membership. In 2014, Ma was chosen as the chief designer for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, making him the first-ever Chinese architect to design a major cultural landmark overseas. Later that year, Ma published a book detailing his “Shan Shui City” philosophy and his architectural achievements. Over the years, he has brought the value of cultural heritage in cities and buildings to the forefront of public attention through a series of exhibitions (both domestic and abroad), publications, and artworks.