Mad World

South China Morning Post Style Magazine, Hong Kong, June 2008
Young and radical, Ma Yansong is pioneering a new, ideological path for Chinese architects

Having your business name linked with madness might not seem a savvy move, but it has served Ma Yansong remarkably well.  During the past few years both his name, and that of his small architecture studio, MAD – which stands for Ma Design – has built an enviable reputation. Ma has buildings under way in countries from Canada to Costa Rica and is the first Chinese architect to win an international competition outside of China.  For a guy not too long out of his master’s degree, and with only one thing actually built, he certainly knows how to create a buzz.

This psychic angle makes more sense when you look at his buildings; they’re almost like people. Underneath each image of steel, concrete or glass sits an ideology, a thought process about technology, society or quite often, politics.  “I think we use architecture as a tool to communicate, not as a product,” says Ma, a casual, slightly hunched 33-year old with a goatee and radical shoes. He leans forward in conversation, as if to balance out a languid, sleepy-eyed demeanor. “We use certain formats or shapes to comment.  We make topics, not buildings. It’s like art work.”

This puts him in a similar boat to his one-time teacher and employer, Zaha Hadid. After a degree in Beijing, Ma applied for a Masters at Yale so that he could study under the radical Iranian architect, a visiting professor who is now to architecture what Bjork is to music. Back then, pre-Pritzker (a prize dubbed the ‘Nobel for architecture’), few of Hadid’s conceptual designs had made it to the building stage, but she fascinated Ma with her molten modernism. He had followed her career through magazines from his university library.

The time at Yale widened Ma’s horizons – he had only traveled within China before that – but more importantly it gave him the guts to run with his more outrageous ideas.  Debate was rare in China in the nineties, but at Yale it was a way of life. “All their professors are famous visiting architects and during school time if they have a different opinion, they fight,” says Ma. “Students get this idea that there’s no right or wrong. After all those arguments I found there is no answer, you have to believe in your own ideas”.

After his degree, Hadid offered to employ Ma in London. He’d caught her eye with a project proposal for the new World Trade Centre; “an organic mushroom cloud” of a building that had horrified the more sensitive of his peers. Where most balked, Hadid was intrigued.  She put him on a Beijing-based urban planning project, which took him back home for part of the time. But the project was eventually axed by an incoming mayor, and Ma decided to stay, though he’d only been with Hadid a year.  It was a bold move. He had built nothing at this point and was leaving a studio that was growing notorious as a hatchery of extreme ideas and edgy young architects. But being home had reminded him of the work waiting to be done in Chinese cities. “I think after I came back I discovered what our task is here, as young designers. There are many challenges from a political view, from an architectural or physical view,” he says. Where Hadid is concerned with radical ideas of form, Ma felt that architecture could become an interesting social tool.

While getting MAD up and running with fellow architects Qun Dang and Yosuke Hayano, Ma would enter it into countless competitions and art exhibitions, which kept their conceptual output high. The designs that won didn’t get built for one reason or another – sometimes the developers just weren’t brave enough, says Ma – but the prize money came in handy. Just one building made it into 3D, and that was all thanks to one rather maverick act of barefaced trickery. “It’s a funny story…” Ma begins, grinning.

Hongluo is the white, spacey clubhouse of a Beijing villa complex, and from a distance it seems to melt into the lake it rests on. For the last year it has drawn hosts of admirers out from the city, an hour away. But Ma’s original meeting with the developer hadn’t gone very well: he’d been told that European-style buildings sold much faster, and that “although he liked it, he didn’t have time to educate his customers to like it,” Ma remembers. The job went to a more established architect who was a friend of Ma’s, and he offered to put forward a MAD design himself. The design was eventually approved, and the developer, pressed for time, let MAD onboard. He ended up with a clubhouse that made it into the London Design Museum.

Still, Ma’s game plan for subtle social activism was underway. Each competition took his designers to a different part of the country, and in each project he saw a way to significantly raise the quality of life there:  whether spatially, socially or politically. Even a fish tank, produced on a whim, had a message. It was designed with the idea that people were like fish, with little choice about the ‘tanks’ that they got to live in, and it went for RMB 400,000 at a charity auction.

A few years ago one project, Beijing 2050, took MAD ideas to an international audience at the highly respected Venice Biennale. “We did the whole project because nobody talked about the future very much in Beijing” Ma says. “They’re too practical.” The three schemes that made up 2050 each tackled a big social issue in China’s capital city: congestion, its treatment of old buildings and the lack of public leisure spots. For the last theme Tiananmen Square got a makeover, from concrete pasture to forested park. It was a clear protest but was quite soft in its way; after all, Ma notes; who doesn’t like a park? Last year two members of congress saw the proposal and suggested that the studio take the idea to the national committee. Debate, it seems, is no longer so rare in China.

“Because I’m very interested in ideological topics, even Tiananmen Square is not about the trees, it’s about the whole of China,” Ma says. “In all the cities around China you can feel a power behind them… Now I think architects could have more of that power to change things. We are not politicians, we cannot make decisions about open spaces being public, but from our level we can do something.”

This link between politics and design can be less abstract. Throughout the country, even the lowliest of towns has a monumental town hall, and Ma has decided that these should be his next target. He has already found one: the mayor of Beihai in Guangxi province was willing to let him go to work on their centerpiece, and Ma plans to replace the hard edges and grand proportions with something more human and natural. However this has all happened in the past year or so, and as recently as 2006 Ma, Hayano and Qun Dang was still finding commissions hard to come by.

That year they entered an online design competition for a residential skyscraper in Mississauga, Canada’s sixth largest city. Their building was sensuous, almost sexy, and it was up against hundreds of entries. Dubbed ‘the Marilyn Monroe building’, it caught the imagination of both the jury and the media, and it won. The project, officially called The Absolute Tower, was MAD’s first building to be realized without skullduggery, and the first time a Chinese architecture firm has won a competition outside of China. When the developer called Ma late last year to report that they needed a second tower – all the flats had sold – Ma told him that there could never be two Marilyns. He conjured her a companion – and that sold out too.

The commissions have since gushed forth from around the globe, and though happy, Ma feels apprehensive about seeing his first large scale project in the ‘flesh’. “I feel quite nervous, because I really haven’t had anything built, not like other people who start their own studio after ten years with another office,” he admits.

One MAD-designed skyscraper in Tianjin will soon become the first super high rise designed by a Chinese architect (all the others in China have been built by large multinational firms). It’ll have over 80 floors and distinctive honeycomb shaped windows.  Ma is also looking forward to seeing another of his small projects in Denmark – one for which the owners got way more than they had bargained. “They wanted something Chinese” he says, smiling. “But what does that mean? We took a building by Mies Van der Rohe, used the same dimensions. Then we melted the whole thing.”

The Denmark Pavilion, which will be very curvy and organic inside, blurs the line between man-made and natural and will feature a courtyard. It will also be made in China. “They agreed in the end,” he says. “It’s hard to control from far away, and also, we wanted to examine the concept of Made in China… [and counteract] its meaning as low quality mass production. We’ll ship it to Denmark when it’s complete.” The developers, who had planned to sell it on have since decided to keep it as a show flat.

Despite a host of awards and accolades it hasn’t been easy taking on so much so young and Ma has endured plenty of criticism from his own peers. Many think his head far too wedged among the clouds, others look down on his youth and a sparse built portfolio. However he is already starting to sing a tune usually trilled by architects twice his age. “I’m too busy to have time to really think deeply,” he complains.”I really want to slow down actually. But China doesn’t allow you to slow down!” It seems he may soon need a new method to his Madness.