The 5th annual A+Awards — the world’s largest awards program for architecture and products — is open for entries! Click here to find out how to submit your project.
Architizer’s A+Awards, the world’s largest awards program for architecture and products, is all about innovation. Every pioneering project — whether it is conceived by a well-known international firm or a small, local practice — gets its moment in the spotlight thanks to a fully public voting system, ensuring that standout designs are rewarded across every typology. Architectural ingenuity has double the chance of being recognized thanks to a cross-disciplinary jury of over 300 luminaries, including some of the world’s brightest designers, businesspeople, educators and entrepreneurs.
Given this fact, it makes perfect sense that Ma Yansong of MAD Architects is one of many remarkable architects on the list of jurors for the 2017 awards. The Chinese architect is the very definition of an innovator, constantly challenging conventions — not just for the design of individual buildings, but also the material makeup of entire cities. Architizer sat down with Ma Yansong at the launch of his firm’s new monograph MAD Works, published by Phaidon, to discuss the firm’s vision, his personal inspirations and what qualities he will be looking for in this year’s A+Awards finalists.
Ma Yansong at his MAD Works book launch in New York City; image courtesy of MAD
Joanna Kloppenburg: How did you come to create MAD Architects, and how has the firm developed since its inception?
Ma Yansong: In 2004, we started. I graduated from Yale in 2002, so there was a very short time in between. I spent half that time, one year, working with Zaha Hadid. She was my professor at school. After my graduation, she asked me to go to London. I had this opportunity to go back to China, and it was quite busy for architects there at that time. 2008 was the Olympic games, so the market was very open and a lot of international architects were coming to China.
At the same time, there were many challenges in terms of architecture design, urban design — many issues. I was thinking, maybe I should do something there, so I started the firm. The first two years, up to 2006, we were kept busy doing competitions and proposals, very quickly; we did almost 100 of those. We were really, really busy until we won the first one in Canada.
Absolute Towers, Mississauga, Canada; image © Iwan Baan
Tell me about your first commission in Canada.
The Canada project was the first international competition that we won. That was really surreal. We felt very lucky, and we did not only win, but they also built it. They realized that building, and then in 2012, we finished the two towers — Absolute Towers — and we won the Best American High-Rise Award that year. We proved that a young firm without experience can do a big project. Then, in China, we started to get more and more projects. [More recently] we have started to do major, large projects, including this opera house and Chaoyang Park Plaza.
It’s amazing because you hear many firms saying that it’s so hard for them to cross that threshold from working on small-scale projects into the large scale.
We started with big ones because we couldn’t find small projects. Like everyone else, we had to find competitions online. Only big projects get publicized in China, and that’s how we started. After the Absolute Tower, which is also a large project, many big ones in China came to us, but we were also doing different types of buildings. We did an opera house and museum, we did a concert hall, we do high-rise buildings. We’re not fixed to any type.
China Philharmonic Concert Hall, Beijing, China; image courtesy of MAD
One of the most fascinating things about MAD is the way that you are able to shift scale so easily. Is there some experience that you brought from working at a large scale to your thinking about smaller scale projects?
I think smaller ones are even more complex. We just finished a kindergarten in Japan, and it’s quite small, but I feel it’s quite complex as it is so close to people and you have to make more decisions than with a big project. For a large project, many parameters are already given. You have to work within limitations. With the smaller ones, you have more freedom and you have to think about everything.
With this kindergarten, we built a new building outside the old building. We kept the structure of the old building because the owner’s father lived there for a long time and he didn’t want change. But the younger generation wanted a bigger space so they can have more kids live there, so we decided to keep the old one inside the new one … This decision was a very emotional decision. Of course, it’s good for the old generation, but more importantly, it is for the kids. It’s good for them to see where this building comes from, emotionally. When they grow up, they have knowledge of this old building, this family.
Clover House, Okazaki, Japan
All these things are equally important in large or small projects, but I think the difference is that, for the largest project, more people have something to say about it. That’s the exciting part for architects, because every building is created by and for individuals, and you have to face the public. The building has to stand for a long time — not only on paper, but after you build it, after 10 years, after 20 years.
MAD is interested in marrying natural, organic forms with advanced, technological building techniques. How do you level or negotiate those two opposing directives within an urban environment?
The urban environment is very complex, and we often talk about its functions. When we talk about pollution, traffic, efficiency and other things, they’re basic things for the city. People get comfort from urban communities, but people are also looking for nature. That’s why we have parks and public spaces and why people want to go to the suburbs after work.
My idea was, is it possible to bring these two feelings together, mixed in the city? What if we treat architecture as an organic organization? What if we see a high-rise building as a landscape? Not only to function like containers. Humans need physical space, but what about emotional space? Humans are a part of nature, and especially now, I would say — at the end of the industrial era — people really want to go back to nature.
Chaoyang Park Plaza, Beijing, China; image courtesy of MAD
“When people have that strong desire for nature, they’re often against the city.”
When people have that strong desire for nature, they’re often against the city. They say that if you look at futuristic movies, the city becomes super machine-like, dark with no sun; they’re like abandoned factories. I think we should have a brighter future, because that’s reality. A lot of people still live in the city. I think New York is great; if you look at the High Line, the houses and the waterfront, you see how cities start to change, how docks and industrial sites change.
Most people see nature in architecture only in terms of sustainability of the architecture and technology. What I discovered about traditional Eastern culture was that there is no clear definition between building and the landscape. In fact, in many Eastern countries, when they build big environments, gardens and cities, they often mix everything. They’re talking about a poetic experience, so they put experience as a priority.
I find that very inspiring. If you look at a Japanese garden, or a Chinese garden, those are not just trees, not just rocks — they have a symbolic meaning for people’s spiritual reflection in their mind. It’s like music, like a poem. What if we bring this poetic feeling to the city? I think that’s what I want to experience in a modern context.
Shanshui City conceptual model; images courtesy of MAD
How do you satisfy those objectives in a large-scale urban project like Shanshui City, for example?
The term “shan” in Chinese is “mountain.” “Shui” is water. It’s very direct: “mountain water.” The Japanese garden I mentioned is part of this culture, but you don’t see the mountain water literally. Shanshui is actually talking about humans’ emotion and imagination toward nature. This is not about landscaping; it’s not about duplicating nature. If you look at a traditional Chinese Shanshui painting, they draw water and they draw a mountain, but it’s based on this master’s imagination. They don’t look at the mountain and draw it. There’s no photograph. They’re not copying, but imagining. People read the painting, and they value the painting [for its imagination].
“If the modern city is going to be more human, more natural, maybe we should go beyond technology.”
The Shanshui is actually beyond nature. It’s about human emotion, and the culture exists in many, many different art forms, like music, poem, gardens and urban planning — old, traditional urban planning. Kyoto, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing were planned like that. But now we are facing a new challenge. We are talking about high-density cities with many people and high-rise buildings. This term is trying to explain that we could bring this philosophy to modern times. If the modern city is going to be more human, more natural, maybe we should go beyond technology. We should go to the emotional level to bring the modern city and nature together.
What are some of the challenges architects face when actually trying to construct a project like this?
Currently, architecture is very much based on commercial values. I think that’s a model for civilization: duplication, mass production, low cost, big value. A lack of culture and emotional reference. I don’t think technology is a real challenge because right now we’re going to Mars. That’s a real challenge for humans. I don’t think building a building is really a challenge. That’s why I don't think building a super tall really matters now, compared to the old times when people built the Empire State. Now it takes nothing to build higher.
But [the challenge is to] build more humanely, make people live in the sky comfortably, where they can easily communicate with other people and still have a community, that kind of thing. I think that’s more difficult, and we should pay more. If you look at some traditional cities where they put this value as a priority, the city becomes classic.
Huangshan Mountain Village, Anhui Province, China; image © Hufton + Crow
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing young architects, and do you think the profession has changed since you have started your practice?
I think so. I think China was the “last architecture lab” — that’s how people say it. A lot of experimental architecture has happened in China. I think people worried about that because in China, culture-wise, people are lacking in judgment — whatever comes, they accept it. [That being said,] there’s nothing wrong with open policy. I think it’s a great honor to be a lab. That shows they’re open, and different cultures want to join.
Everything is happening. You have the CCTV building, and at the same time, you have something that looks like Capitol Hill or the White House. It’s very crazy. Then suddenly, there’s another group of Chinese architects that are trying to be anti-modern. They want to go back to a more traditional style. There’s chaos. That’s my understanding. We should answer the contemporary challenge. People say we are chaotic, but at the same time, they’re saying we’re doing the same city everywhere. Southern cities in China look the same; there’s no local culture identity. They’re looking for a new future and different things.
“I think the young people now should be more ambitious and less collaborative, more independent.”
I don’t think they should blame the new creatives for this. When our president said “no weird architecture” two years ago, a lot of people came to interview me, saying, “How’s your business? Can you do more?” Actually, we’re still doing great. Last month, we just announced [that we will design] this national concert hall in Beijing. That’s a big message. That had to get approval at a national level.
I don’t think conservatories are built. When you look back to New York, at what happened in MoMa in 1988, there was an exhibition called “Deconstructivism.” It was curated by Philip Johnson, and they exhibited eight architects — Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, all of these people. They were young, and they were really anti-mainstream culture. They were so individual, and they were trying to be creative. Now, they are so influential and inspiring young people.
I think the young people now should be more ambitious and less collaborative, more independent. Because I think now it’s harder and harder for young firms. They can’t even get into the competition. It’s very difficult.
Harbin Opera House, Harbin, China
As a juror for the 2017 Architizer A+Awards, what architectural qualities will you be looking for in the next round of designs?
I’m looking for creativity, of course, but when I say that, I mean creativity in transforming modern architecture into something else. It’s not only about beauty, it’s also about a form representing our cultural values and human needs. Emotional needs.
When I see a great modern architecture, I’m not interested. When I see it start to change, and transform, I’m more interested. That gives us a sign we’re going to a new, better environment. Often, this transformation is about nature. I see last year’s proposals for several projects, and they're very bright, very light, but at the same time, the experience is new. I think that we need more of this architecture to show a new future to young people.
Enter this year’s A+Awards for a chance to be recognized by Ma Yansong and a host of other incredible architects. Click here to find out how to submit your project.