Architect Ma Yansong
Chinese architect Ma Yansong founded MAD Architecture twelve years ago in Beijing and is now opening another office in Los Angeles.
What are the main priorities for a Chinese architect building in China today?
I think the big thing is that China is being modernized, compared to the agricultural civilization. Now it’s being transformed into something directly modern or even postmodern. A lot of places in China, the lifestyle, the architecture, the art and music — they’re in the process to becoming modernized. Chinese cities copy a lot of modern cities around the world, by building so many new cities and towers we use places like Chicago or New York as a reference, because those places have a very symbolic modern urban image and we’re copying that. At the same time, while we’re building those modern cities, Chinese people also feel the loss of identity. I think a lot of architects are working in this environment where they want to do something modern, but also find the route to the top, the connection to the tradition. I think that also, while many Chinese people are in this fast-developing pace, people recognize tradition is important.
I think for myself, I’ve seen people copying the traditional architecture as an image, and very similar as if they were copying the western modern style. I think beyond those symbolic images, we should think about the real value of our tradition. Like the lecture I had, Shanshui art and paintings and culture, it’s a new way to look at our living environment. I don’t think that only belongs to the top. Instead I think the modern cities are the way to look at the environment, and nature is not more advanced than the traditional culture. I think, no matter what culture you’re in, when we look at those traditional artists we always find them so interesting and enjoyable, and we are all criticizing the lack of emotion or nature in modern cities.
How do you reconcile the necessity of building densely and the serenity of natural environments?
Smaller buildings are easier. In many traditional tower cities, once you build a smaller architecture, because of scale, normally people like green, like a tree, and when the nature has more weight than the architecture you think “that’s a good environment.” But sometime, I’ve found, it’s different. Sometime when you are in the desert, or in front of the ocean, you also find the landscape so beautiful and there are no trees. The scale of ocean ishuge, and mountains, deserts, those scales are huge; they are much bigger than any building. You also find those landscape sceneries so beautiful and sometime when you do some drawings, traditional painting, paintings are small — when you see the content in the painting, you imagine something big.
That imagination I think can apply to different scales. I mention the gardens and rocks at this scale but that idea can also apply to cities, like the city of Beijing is a larger version (I would say) of traditional gardens in China. Sometimes you can also create smaller sculpture, and put on your table, and that’s the micro-scale. I think we don’t necessarily need to use humans or trees as a reference for a natural scale. Sometime I think it’s more important to create a feeling or emotion or an atmosphere in the overall environment. I think it’s still a challenge, that doesn’t mean we can only achieve that kind of harmonious environment at the human scale. For example, the large buildings, the high-rise towers in the city, there is a human scale and people will enter those buildings and use the space. That’s something familiar that we referenced, this kind of human space, but overall we could treat it as a desert or mountain or waterfall or ocean, on a huge scale, but also create something that people will have a feeling about, instead of only as functional boxes. So I think there’s a way we’re trying to explore that in different projects.
What’s your opinion of parametric design?
It’s a tool. I use parametric tools to develop my designs, but I never use them to design my architecture. I normally start from a sketch, so a very traditional way. I think sketching is very important — it’s a tighter, more direct relation to what your feeling, what you feel about the place or the building. I think parametric design gives you the freedom to get you what you want, but you have to know what you want first. So I’d say it’s a tool, and in the past we’ve used different tools — rulers, pencils — but those tools can never decide what you want.
Why did you choose to set up another office in Los Angeles?
We have a project in Los Angeles, we’re working on a new residential project in Beverly Hills. So a local office can help us to have better communication. When we had to work with a lot of consultants in Los Angeles it was difficult, so it’ll be easier for this project. But maybe in the future we can work on more projects in the states. That project will probably take two years, and the office can keep an eye on the whole project, but we are also hoping to work on more projects in the U.S.