Ma Yansong is the man behind architectural fantasies like the Harbin Opera House and Fake Hills apartment complex in China, buildings whose sensual, sculptural and outlandish forms evoke the natural world quite literally – think mountains, valleys or glaciers. Forget boxy, geometrical and rectilinear designs – Ma is on a mission to create cities that are more organic, undulating and ultimately more liveable and more human. So futuristic are his megastructures that they could be spaceships right out of science-fiction flicks. Yet they’re not just figments of his imagination. His projects are being built in China – a country witnessing explosive population growth – and increasingly in the West in cities in search of solutions to high urban density. It’s a true testament of his creative prowess that his unconventional soaring edifices are seeing the light of day, even though they trigger massive technical challenges for their builders and engineers as well as increased financial costs for their developers. Most towers are constructed on straight lines simply because they’re more efficient and less expensive to build that way. But that’s not the Ma way.
While in the past it has primarily been the West exporting its expertise to the East, Ma has been moving in the opposite direction. America is today his new eldorado, a land of golden opportunity, as he’s working concurrently on numerous projects: a condominium high-rise at 4 East 34th St near the Empire State Building in New York, twin mixed-use towers in Washington DC, an oceanfront clubhouse for a tech company in Los Angeles, twin condo towers in Toronto and the long awaited Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Intent on reinventing housing in Los Angeles by instilling it with a strong sense of community, his first project in the US is the 4,463-sqm, 18-m high 8600 Wilshire in Beverly Hills showcasing a central courtyard housing trees, native plants and a water feature –reminiscent of Beijing’s traditional courtyard homes. Mimicking the adjacent foothills, the 18-unit residential village (including three townhouses, five villas, two studios and eight condominiums) atop commercial space enveloped in a green wall resembles a small hill that contours upwards as it moves towards Wilshire Boulevard, thus bringing nature and a feeling of community into the heart of the concrete jungle. There is a mix of public and private as the villas seem opaque from the street yet offer a transparent façade facing the private garden, townhouses and condominium units. Frank Gehry himself recently said about Los Angeles, “The art of architecture is rarely practiced in our city. Most of our buildings have no spirit or humanity to them.” While Modernist and Post-Modernist housing in high-density cities primarily focused on function and format rather than people’s relationship to the environment, 8600 Wilshire proposes a new architectural model for the West Coast by favouring the human experience. Completion is expected in late 2017.
Ma states, “We work on large projects in China, some cultural institutions that are more public and more sculptural. So the first question for me when I came to Beverly Hills was what should I do? This project is very contextual. My first impression of Beverly Hills was that it had a landscape of small houses built by famous architects, so I didn’t want to make a big block or sculpture here; I wanted to make a community rooted to the place. That’s quite rare for me because the projects we work on usually need architecture to define the place, so normally our architecture is very strong. Many new places don’t have much cultural background, so they need iconic architecture to give them an identity, but here the context is quite strong. The concept was to make this five-floor, mid-size and mixed-use building look like a small village, to break down the scale, to have a sense of community. Then we build a hill, and a house on the hill. The courtyard is a space for community, and we have other open spaces like the kitchen, dining and living room facing each other so residents can say hello to their neighbours from their balconies. Here, privacy is so important, but I think in Beverly Hills especially, people need to talk to one another.”
MAD’s first constructed project in Europe after winning an international competition in collaboration with French firm Biecher Architectes is the 6,600-sqm, 50-m high and 13-storey UNIC residences, scheduled to be completed in 2017. Located in the emerging Clichy-Batignolles district of Paris facing the 10-hectare Martin Luther King Park, UNIC resulted from close dialogue with the local government, city planners and local architects in a series of workshops on sustainable community development, resource sharing, energy management and population demographics to ensure it is a creative and iconic residential project that forms an important part of the community. Featuring a simple double core structure and bare concrete façade, it blurs the lines between architecture and nature through stepped terraces, which extend the park’s green spaces to the building’s verticality. With twisting floor plates, each asymmetrical level slightly narrows as the building climbs in an upward-growing form. While the upper floors showcase panoramic views of the capital and its monuments, UNIC’s podium is connected to a public housing project with direct access to the metro and community resources such as a kindergarten, shops and restaurants to encourage everyday human interaction among a diverse socio-economic neighbourhood.
Next door in Italy, the 20,000-sqm, 28.5-m high 71 via Boncompagni luxury residences in Rome contains 145 units of varying sizes with balconies on each of the eight floors. Built in the 1970s, the existing modern edifice was a commercial courtyard building attached to an early 20th-century chapel. An adaptive reuse project introducing vibrant contemporary urban living to Rome’s closed-off historical buildings and traditional neighbourhoods, Ma removed all of the original structure’s walls, keeping only the floors and columns. Choosing to open the old bulky façades instead of demolishing and reconstructing the entire abandoned building, he retained the concrete structural framework and inserted new metal-and-glass living units, balconies and gardens, proposing a more transparent scheme resembling a “bookshelf”. Floor-to-ceiling curved glass windows protrude between the floor slabs to allow in maximum daylight, while facing the interior courtyard, residents retain privacy through translucent metallic curtains.
On a smaller scale, Clover House in Okazaki, MAD’s first project in Japan, inserts remnants of an old house inside a new building. Recently completed, it was created when the owner decided to transform his own family house into a local kindergarten. By day, the children and teachers study, communicate, eat, rest and play. By night, the house reverts back to a living space for the owner’s family and the schoolteachers. Rather than destroying the existing 105-sqm, two-storey house, the original wood structure was incorporated into the new building’s design – such as the pitched roof that creates a dynamic interior space and introduces the owner’s memories of the building – and wrapped with a new house skin and organic structure. As the original wood structure is present throughout the main learning area, it serves as a tool to tell students about the building’s history and traditions, while they are taught their regular lessons.
Born in Beijing in 1975, Ma originally aspired to be an artist then a filmmaker, but turned to architecture when his application to film school was rejected. After graduating with a master’s degree in architecture from Yale in 2002, he worked as a project designer for the late British architect, Zaha Hadid, in London for a year, and founded the Beijingbased MAD architectural firm in 2004. He was the first Chinese architect to win an international competition for a foreign landmark project: the Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Canada, twin asymmetrical, spiralling residential high-rises with 360-degee views on each level that have a slightly different appearance from every angle. Every floor and every unit is unique. His very first overseas project finalised in 2012, it proved that China was a burgeoning force in creative architecture and brought international exposure to a Toronto suburb – unusual for a privatelydeveloped condominium to help an emerging city form an identity through its architecture, as it’s a job usually left to public projects, such as a museum, opera house or city hall.
Before Absolute Towers, Ma had never built a tower before. As it turns out, he had no opportunities to build skyscrapers in China before the Canadian project because nobody believed his studio could deal with such a colossal job. But all that changed thanks to the breakthrough commission. At 41 years old, an age when many young architects have little hope of seeing their imaginative high-rise designs getting further than proposals, Ma has overcome barriers to early success and already built a strong reputation for himself in a competitive industry. With 10 completed buildings under his belt, he is currently working on major structures in Asia, Europe and America, with seven under construction. Today, he has offices in Beijing, New York and Los Angeles staffed by a team of 90, who work on 20 projects at any one time.
China in particular has given Ma countless opportunities, providing him with his first base as an architect because “everywhere you look, you see problems. You think you will do better than this, but you just need the opportunity to do it,” he says. A nation still full of potential, some of his projects could not be built anywhere else but in China, which offers creative license to its architects, who are encouraged to think big and experiment with cutting-edge designs on high-visibility, large-scale projects, which can be designed and constructed at lightning speed thanks to a top-down system with little transparency and regulatory oversight. This is changing now though, Ma divulges, as architects are taking on more responsibility and consulting with the community – also becoming master planners and policy-makers – when before they just followed orders. They no longer act as simple middlemen between the government and the developer, but participate in the decision-making process as well.
In the last few years, Ma’s projects have reflected his vision of the “shanshui city”, which aims to create a new balance among society, the city and the environment through architecture – a concept that he’s already proven through various completed projects. He relates, “Shanshui means ‘mountain-water’, two characters, but in China, it’s part of the culture. You can also make a shanshui painting or a shanshui garden. It’s the idea of bringing inspiration from nature into the architectural world. It’s manmade but when you look at a rock or a tree, you can imagine the future or your life and values – it’s not just about human comfort. So I was thinking I could bring this concept, this understanding of nature, to cities and large-scale buildings. We need to enter a new era to make nature and humans more emotionally connected in modern cities. That’s a big goal and how to do it, the thinking process, takes years. Once you have this philosophy, you just need to react to different conditions, the size, the location, but that’s more about instinct. I’m sensitive to my own instinct, and I can come very quickly to the concept. I don’t compare; I don’t hesitate. Before, I looked at what other people were doing and how my work was different from theirs. Now I’m more into my own past and my history, and I want to dig this out and see how to develop myself. It’s more about myself; it’s a lonelier process.”
Perhaps most representative of this philosophy are Ma’s monumental projects in China, where you’ll feel like you’ve just stepped inside a Chinese classical landscape painting. Its lakes, springs, creeks, forests, valleys and stones are almost quite literally transplanted into his highdensity modern urban architecture. He explains why the shapes of his buildings bear a striking resemblance to natural landscapes: “I grew up in Beijing and there weren’t many modern buildings during my childhood. I was influenced by traditional culture: the courtyards, the hutongs, the old city and all the art forms, so very naturally I brought this to my practice. In our traditional culture, people have a very different view towards nature than in Western culture. We consider humans as part of nature. But in the West, they talk about protecting nature. That’s a joke because nature doesn’t care; it’s humans who need to protect themselves. So it’s my instinct to bring this to my practice and also to the West. When I work within the context and I put in my emotion, inspiration from my past comes naturally. That’s my cultural background, so it’s interesting to see how this natural concept will work within the Western context. In China, the most important thing is nature, and manmade gardens or temples always work with nature. In the West, when you talk about green buildings, you have buildings that still look modern but have better glass or technology. But in the gardens, the experience is so beautiful. It’s not only about physical comfort, but the 0spiritual, and that’s more important.”
Being the size of a city, the 560,000-sqm, 120-m high Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Centre –composed of office, commercial, residential and hotel spaces – allows Ma to realise a full-scale shanshui city, adapting the traditional Chinese shanshui ethos of spiritual harmony between nature and humanity to a contemporary urban environment. Reconciling the city’s historic past and its high-tech future, the centre creates integrated, contemplative spaces that meet the material requirements of modern-day life. Comprising six lots – two of which are linked by a vertical city plaza – there are curving, ascending corridors and paths that interlace through the undulating commercial complexes to encourage people to roam through the buildings and gardens. Sitting in the middle is a village-like community of low buildings linked by footbridges and nestled into a poetic landscape of artificial hills and water features such as ponds, waterfalls, brooks and pools. Mountain-like towers feature vertical sun shading and glass screens that “flow” like waterfalls on the edge of the site, echoing the surrounding mountains and rivers central to Chinese aesthetic philosophy. Currently under construction, the centre is estimated to be completed next year.
Another project that rethinks the traditional model of buildings in a modern city, injecting nature into modern urban architecture so people can share emotions and a sense of belonging, is the 220,000-sqm, 120-m high Chaoyang Park Plaza on the edge of one of the largest public parks in Beijing. The office, commercial and residential complex creates a dialogue between manmade scenery and natural landscapes. Staggered shaped garden terraces at the top of two ridged, asymmetrical dark glass towers offer breathtaking views of the city and the valley created by the site’s shorter buildings, thereby recalling China’s tall mountain cliffs and river landscapes. As if the result of water cascading down the façade, the grooves feature an internal ventilation and filtration system that brings a natural breeze indoors. Further bringing nature inside, flowing water in the interconnecting courtyard lobby recreates a mountain valley scene. Four office buildings shaped like long-eroded river stones are accompanied by two multilevel residential buildings with a “mid-air courtyard” concept that immerses visitors into what would be best described as a mountain forest.
As most development in China’s new cities are residential homes, often standardised and inexpensive for a quick return on investment, Ma is building high-density, affordable housing that is also architecturally innovative and hopes to be a new landmark for the city. His 492,000- sqm oceanfront Fake Hills apartment complex in the coastal city of Beihai in southern China consists of a high-rise and groundscraper in the shape of manmade hills, all with phenomenal ocean views. Ma discloses, “I made sure it was very emotional. Basically I went there and sketched on paper, then I scanned it and it became the building. That curvy line is not very perfect, but it’s a direct reaction.” The continuous platform along the rooftop provides residents with gardens, tennis courts and swimming pools, while the openings in the edifice allow sea breezes to pass through.
Ma comments, “In China, because of the large population, we have to answer the question of how to make high-density housing. Big buildings are a condition that we have to work with – there’s no choice. It doesn’t mean big buildings are bad. Now the population is 30 times more than the old Beijing. If everyone has a courtyard, there would be no Beijing. China uses high-rises as a symbol of modernity and power, but there’s also a real need. To design in high-density cities, first you have to have a sense of community, and nature and human scale are important. In Fake Hills, since it’s oceanfront, I decided to bring the mountain there because nothing is big in front of the ocean, and this region has a lot of mountains, very similar in shape. So although we’re making a large community – 4,000 families in one building – we’re also making a new cityscape and people feel like they’re living in a mountain because they have terraces on the roof and open spaces.”
Tireless, MAD’s projects in the pipeline include the Quanzhou Convention Centre in Nanjing, the China Philharmonic Hall in Beijing clad in pure-looking translucent glass that will glow at night and feature panoramic projections so visitors feel like they’re in the mountains or in the middle of the ocean, a hotel that forms part of Harbin Cultural Island that will be finished in November and two mixed-use high-rises in Izmir, Turkey. Ma describes the future of architecture, “Luxury now is nature. When you have a balcony or small garden, that’s beautiful. Nature is also a social device because in front of nature, everyone is more equal and it brings people together. Everyone is talking about sustainability, green architecture. But not many people realise this is actually about humans themselves and how they will live in the future world. In the movies where you see the future, the city is very dark and not very beautiful because technology takes over the sensibility, emotions and spirits of human beings. So when people talk about the environment, it’s a starting point of this transformation from modern times to more nature and humanity. In the modern city, a lot of things were controlled by other priorities, like the economy and politics. Sometimes I imagine if aliens come to attack earth, they will destroy all this. They may leave some pieces, such as Frank Gehry’s buildings or the Forbidden City. But when humanity and spiritual demands become more the priority, the whole world will change.”