my journey by Alyn Griffiths

China’s Star Architect on his mission to transform urban living by merging nature and city.

reading time 13 minutes

Young, confident, highly accomplished, and with an almost exclusively monochrome wardrobe, Ma Yansong perfectly fits the profile of the modern star architect. Since founding his Beijing-based studio MAD Architects in 2004, the 42-year-old has developed a unique architectural vision that blends naturalistic Eastern aesthetics with state of the art building practices. With projects such as the Chaoyang Park Plaza complex in Beijing and Huangshan Mountain Village in China’s Anhui province earning international acclaim, MAD has been busy advancing this ideal with more than 100 staff members and offices in New York and Los Angeles. Speaking en route to give a lecture at his alma mater in Beijing, Ma tells architecture and design writer Alyn Griffiths about his path to his unique Shanshui City architectural philosophy, what it was like working with Zaha Hadid and George Lucas, and how his seminal concept could be used to reconnect city-dwellers with their natural surroundings. 

Let’s start at the beginning of your journey. When did you first realize you were interested in architecture?
I think I was always interested in creating fantasies. I liked drawing when I was young. I wanted to be an artist. Then, in high school, I decided to be a film director. But when I went for the test at the film academy, a professor there suggested I should study architecture instead. And so, I went to architecture school without really knowing much about the subject. I only really became interested in it when I read a book about 100 famous architects, their work, their philosophies. That was a big book [laughs]. I discovered that architecture is not about technology or science — it’s an art. And that’s what I wanted to do.

How did growing up in a Beijing hutong influence your perception of architecture, and your view of the relationship between nature and urban environment?
Old Beijing was a huge garden. Its urban plan was not determined purely by function. The layout was designed to be very spiritual, ethereal. I only appreciated how unique this was when I studied Western architecture, “modern” architecture. This moved me to look into traditional philosophies and art forms. I learned that in eastern philosophy, the relationship between human and nature has always been a key thing.

Chaoyang Park Plaza.

Did that factor at all in your studies at Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture?
China was at the very beginning of modernization and urbanization, so there was more and more modern architecture. At the time, a lot of emphasis was placed on studying architecture from the West. Students were looking to architects from America, like Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Richard Meier.  There were some studies comparing Western history and Eastern history, but I don’t think that this history had really translated into design studies.

Eventually, you would help shift that emphasis yourself. But first you moved away. How did graduate school at Yale change your perception of your craft?
Yale had a very unique approach. Instead of one main direction, they had all these different masters teaching at the same time, doing different projects and arguing with each other. As a student, you were not trained to be someone else. You had to figure out who you really liked, who you were, and what kind of thing you wanted to do. Yale opened my eyes to the broader world of architecture. When we finished graduate studies, the dean Robert Stern said, “now you should try to forget everything you have heard here, because your main task is to become yourself.” I think that was very helpful.

During your studies at Yale you were taught by Zaha Hadid, and you later worked at her studio in London. What were the key lessons you learned from her?
She was an artist. From the very beginning, I thought she was doing very daring and unique organic architecture. I liked the natural style of her work, the organic shapes. After I became her student, in 2001, we were proposing for the new World Trade Center in New York. I proposed something really different, a floating structure, floating in the sky horizontally. It was not really the work of a typical Zaha student, but she liked it very much. She liked students to have their own approach. After she looked at my work, she brought me a lot of books about contemporary art. I think that artistic side was very unique to her.

You started your own studio in 2004, when you were just 29. What made you want to do that, and did it feel like a bold move to set out on your own at such a young age?
I think I was ready. Of course, to do architecture you need experience, but you will build that experience eventually. I started because I had so many ideas I wanted to express. I came back to China, I did many competitions there, and won some, but didn’t end up building any of the buildings. Actually, the first one I built was a competition I did in Canada, in the end of 2005, Absolute Towers.

china architect

Absolute Towers

Why did you have trouble at first getting your buildings made in China?
I think it’s difficult for young architects all over the world. I now know that winning the Absolute Towers was very lucky. Actually, China was quite open. I won’t complain. They invited me to take part in competitions, but the competitors were often big offices from the West. I think the reason they didn’t take my designs was because the architecture I proposed was too extreme for them. Many offices that build in China think of more practical factors. It was a good thing that I didn’t realize that. If I’d realized that at a very early stage, maybe I would have changed myself. I would have adjusted myself to be more realistic.

So you stuck to what you believed in and eventually someone gave you a chance to build it.  How did the Absolute Towers project help set up your studio, both in terms of elevating your profile, and helping you to figure out who you were as an architect?
Before the Olympics of 2008 — when many projects were designed by Chinese architects — local architects often complained about international “star architects” practicing in China. My winning outside of China was a big thing for that community. It was seen as proof that a young architect could be on the same level as other international architects. By the time we had completed the building, in 2012, the environment had changed a lot. When we started off, the government just wanted to do things quickly, and the developers built so many boring houses everywhere. I think the government was starting to feel guilty for building so many ugly houses. [Laughs.] And now they had capital. The main goal for them switched now: from making money to making a mark — displaying the cultural identity of contemporary China. They were willing to try something new.

In that context, your approach became perfect for them because it’s so idiosyncratic, so unique.
It was part of a process of finding myself. I started noticing the difference between Eastern and Western architecture during my childhood. I now wondered how I could bring that philosophy into these new buildings. Many decision-makers in China experienced this same cultural crisis. I don’t think they wanted to continue the Western way of creating cities. On both sides, doing experiments became more important. That’s why more of my work could be realized.

Harbin Opera House

Some of the ideas you’re mentioning there relate to the concept of the Shanshui City, which you developed and has become central to your practice. Could you explain how this evolved and how you translate it into the diverse projects your studio works on?
Shanshui is a term that explains the philosophy behind many traditional art forms, including painting, music, but also architecture, the art of urban planning. The key is to consider the whole environment as a spiritual experience. It’s not about buildings, plans and space. Those terms are very physical, very scientific. Shanshui is more about the spirits. Many people think that building means you have to build modern buildings from the West, and that it’s impossible to use traditional buildings, because traditional buildings are small, made of natural materials unsuited to big constructions. I want to change this, creating architecture that can still create a feeling, an experience. This means thinking beyond modern architecture.

One of the key aspects of that concept is the relationship between architecture and nature. Do you feel there’s an inherent contradiction in celebrating nature while expanding the manmade environment? How do you seek to confront that?
In the West, manmade and natural are considered two different things. They’re considered opposites. That’s different in the East. In Chinese and Japanese gardens, for example, every element, every small thing, is architectural. They were carefully planned and organized. They were designed to create a unique experience or feelings in this environment. The same can be applied to the city. The spiritual experience should be a priority, instead of thinking of architecture as “a machine.” In the old times, people were already so smart, they created architecture beyond that functionality. I think that’s what’s lacking in modern architecture and modern cities.

china architect

Ordos Museum. Photo Iwan Baan

How successfully have you implemented your ideal so far? Do you think your projects in Huangshan Mountain Village and Chaoyang Park Plaza encapsulate your philosophy?
I wouldn’t say those are very successful, because I started them 5 years ago, when I was just starting to realize this approach. My early projects were very large-scale. I think was trying to make a statement. Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing is very different compared to other modern towers. That was the priority for me five years ago. Now I’m trying to create buildings that are more sensitive to the human experience. It’s a process.

You’re currently working on a few projects in the US, including the 8600 Wilshire development and a museum for George Lucas. How is it different working in the West? And how does your approach differ in those contexts?
Luckily, the clients for both those clients are very emotional people (laughs). The 8600 Wilshire project, the client was my friend actually; he knows my interests. And George Lucas, of course, is very in touch with his emotions. You don’t need to explain much to him. If he likes your design, he will tell you he likes it. I have been approached by other Western clients, developers. If they pay more attention to the practical side of architecture, it’s going to be hard for them to appreciate my designs. In general, I think America is more practical and conservative than China. It’s harder for me to practice in that context. But I am so lucky that George Lucas is my client. He’s a wonderful guy.

Do you still apply the same Shanshui philosophy when you work on buildings in the West? Or do you have to adapt the way you approach these projects?
I think Shanshui is a new angle to looking at architecture. Humans and nature are too often treated as two separate concepts: we use nature, or we love nature, or we destroy nature, or we preserve nature. We should change the concept: human and nature are one thing. There should be an emotional connection. Architecture can be that connection. Perhaps that’s inspired by Eastern traditional culture, but it doesn’t only belong to the East. If you’re sensitive, you can go to different context and create something that fits that environment. Being sensitive, creating this harmony, is an attitude, not a style you can use.

Digital technology has obviously evolved at an amazing rate since you started your studio. How has that affected your work and your profession more broadly? What is it good for and what is it bad for?
Computers are a tool. They can help you to realize your dream, but first you have to have the dream. You can use computers to express your artistic feelings, but don’t use it to think of the design. I do sketches because I first have to imagine, I have to think. I try to use a sketch to first capture my feelings, to communicate with other people. And then we use a computer to realize those sketches into architecture. I think it’s the same as other tools that existed before, like rulers. They can help you, but I don’t think they can create emotions.

What aspects of running an architecture practice with projects around the world do you enjoy the most?
Having a good idea. I enjoy the moment when you create something. I also enjoy the moment many years later when people finally see the building. Some people will still complain that they don’t like it. [Laughs] Everyone has a different reaction to your creation. It’s so exciting. This is the cultural dialogue I was talking about.

Is there something that you’re particularly proud of from what you’ve achieved in your career so far?
[Sighs.] No. [Laughs]. I think I’m still in the early stages of my career. I think I have very unique roots that are very different from all other architects. I am curious how I can transform these traditional values into something bigger. I feel excited about that. Maybe it’s good that I don’t feel I have many achievements yet. I see a little bit of progress in each project, so I’m always curious, expecting the next one.

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