FOUNDING PRINCIPA, MAD ARCHITECTS
By Ian Volner
Portrait by Zachary Bako
China’s 21st-century boom years have brought the country two types of bad architecture: banal concrete slabs and jazzy pseudo-iconic showpieces. When President Xi Jinping sounded off about “weird buildings” this past December, it sounded to many like a death knell for the latter—but Ma Yansong is making sure the former isn’t the only remaining alternative.
“Some developments have made people feel isolated from their community,” Ma says. “There’s no public space. When the people meet in the neighborhood, they should know their neighbors names.”
As the founding principal of MAD Studio, the 40-year-old Ma is taking on the challenge of socially informed design in his home country as part of a broader global mission. His firm, founded in 2004, has already completed one major residential building abroad, the eerily balletic Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Ontario, near Toronto, and just a few months back Italian officials green-lighted what will be MAD’s first European project, the ultra-eco-friendly 71 Via Boncompagni in Rome. The eight-level, 145-unit complex sports a shelf-like structural system supporting a series of irregular, curved apartments interrupted by leafy green space. “Openness is the idea,” Ma says. “On the street you have real life, nature. It’s about how people use the space, rather than about creating some kind of stylish architecture.”
Bringing that vision back home to China has been part of a broad-based effort that has driven Beijing-born Ma from the start. After receiving his master’s in architecture from Yale, the designer broke onto the global scene in 2002 with his experimental digital project “Floating Island,”, a sort of habitable Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation featuring recreational and cultural programming hoisted on a fluttering platform-ribbon high above New York. The scheme, and much that’s followed it, was born of Ma’s sense that something—some un-nameable quality—is missing from contemporary design. “I think a spiritual element has to be in the DNA of the built environment,” he says, and his attempt to reinsert that immaterial x-factor has given rise Ma’s boldly speculative vision of China: Shansui City, an integrated environment for urban living that eschews both the sterility of the box-tower model and the spectacle of “weirdness.”
Yansong’s recent success in the Eternal City was itself an eternity in the making, with MAD and its collaborators finally winning approval for the Rome apartment building fully two years after winning the commission to design it. Things tend to move faster in China, however, and hopefully Ma won’t have to wait quite as long to realize one piece of his Shansui vision in Beijing: His latest proposal, for a social housing project north of the city’s Fourth Ring, is due to begin construction early next year. The design is “all about emotional action,” says Ma, creating “environments that can link to people’s emotions.” That gambit—the idea architecture can forge that connection without resorting to showy gestures—is the same he’s pursuing in a new and very high-profile institutional project, the much-debated Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Chicago: the sprawling, teepee’d structure faces considerable political headwinds, but Ma sees it as a chance to make a case for his brand of urbnaism to a new and still broader audience. “This is a great opportunity,” he says. “China and America have to have a dialogue on culture and design.”