How can nature and architecture be combined in a city context? Beijing-born architect Ma Yansong finds the answer in his forward-thinking ‘landscape’ architecture
Born in 1975, Ma Yansong founded his practice, MAD, in Beijing in 2004. He has since gone on to build a worldwide reputation and was in fact the first architect from China to receive an RIBA Fellowship. In pursuit of futuristic architecture based on a contemporary interpretation of the eastern spirit of nature, MAD works on a wide range of projects from residential, cultural to mixed-use. Their major breakthrough is the recently-completed Absolute Towers in Canada – their very first international competition win back in 2006. “It was a shock to me. I didn’t expect the win,” says Ma. “I think as a young architect, it was a really important experience.”
The Canadian residential landmark is epitome of his design: forward-thinking, organic and natural. “The buildings have balcony on every floor and they rotate by different degrees at different levels, so the towers have a very interesting shape,” notes Ma, whose design shows deviation from the traditional identical twin tower typology with curvy lines and continuous balconies. “We were trying to create a new identity for this new city.”
To Ma, identity is crucial to a city, but this is the one thing China lacks. “The question isn’t whether we should urbanise or not, but rather how to build new towns and cities. All our cities look the same. They’re copying towers from everywhere without an identity. In the new towns, they just put the buildings in and get rid of nature,” he explains.
Ma’s proposal for the Huangshan Mountain Village – residences, a hotel and communal amenities – blurs the boundaries between architecture and nature, as if it has always been part of the surrounding landscape. “It was an attempt to merge urban life into nature, without replacing it,” says Ma.
Talking about the architectural scene in his hometown, Ma believes Beijing’s rich heritage has a strong character which allows the city to embrace new ideas – just like his Hutong Bubble 32, a futuristic addition providing a toilet and staircase to the traditional hutong. When asked about the contemporary architecture in the city built around the 2008 Olympics including the National Centre for the Performing Arts, he describes it as “a political decision to show China is open and can accept new ideas” back then, but the buildings have served their purpose.
“People have now started to criticise those buildings. But if that change hasn’t occurred, they wouldn’t know that they can criticise, that they have the right to speak. Society is changing,” he says.
Dialogue – especially between architects – is vital for a city’s development, as Ma points out: “We need more unrealistic or idealistic thinking, because China is very practical. All cities plan alike because of practical reasons. I think discussion is needed; I cannot find enough dialogue here.”