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One of China’s most prominent architects, Beijing-born Ma Yansong talks about the ‘shan-shui city,’ his design philosophy that blends urban construction and environment to bring people closer to nature – and each other

By Li Jing Updated Jul.1

Absolute World, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Ma Yansong was the first Chinese architect to win a prestige project overseas

Rejection is also meaningful,” architect Ma Yansong said.  

His architecture firm MAD Architects lost the 2017 tender bidding for Zhuhai Jinwan Civic Arts Centre, now under construction in the coastal city of Zhuhai, Guangdong Province.  

Ma was beaten by the firm of his late mentor, Zaha Hadid Architects.  

But compared with the other 11 competing projects, Ma’s design, titled “A Village Under the Dome,” was the only one that preserved the original site of the centuriesold Yinkeng Village, which dates back to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).  

In 2018, Zhuhai municipal government began demolition work and relocated villagers to make room for the new center.  

Ma’s design maintained the village’s original layout, including the public square, narrow lanes, green space and ponds, and protects its ancient banyan tree. He attempted to encapsulate the daily life and community atmosphere of the old village by crowning it with a huge dome.  

Unfortunately, the village was demolished beyond recognition before Ma’s plan was completed. 

Born in Beijing in 1975, Ma is among China’s most internationally acclaimed architects, known for his futuristic works that blend architecture with nature. Over the past 16 years, Ma and his Beijing-based firm MAD Architects has worked in the Americas, Europe and Asia.  

His Absolute World complex in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada was named Best Tall Building in the Americas by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a nonprofit based in Chicago. In 2014, he won the contract for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.  

Throughout his career, Ma has adhered to his concept of the “shan-shui city,” which integrates architecture and nature while emphasizing livability. The concept is Ma’s critical response to the monotonous box-like buildings that shape modern urban spaces.  

“It always takes time to change ideas,” Ma told NewsChina.  

“Someone has to stand up and voice some-thing different so there can be more discussions and negotiations, otherwise nothing changes.”  

Shan-shui City 
MAD is based out of an eight-story building on Beijing’s Dongsi North Street, surrounded by historic alleys and courtyard homes.  

When tired, Ma retreats to the rooftop, which offers sweeping views of grey tiled courtyards, the White Pagoda of Beihai Park and the central hill of Jingshan Park. On a clear day, the Western Hills are visible. This is the Beijing of Ma’s childhood memories.  

Courtyards are a huge part of his life. Ma grew up in one in Xidan, now a shopping district in central Beijing. His grandmother lived in a courtyard near another shopping district, Wangfujing. His childhood was spent playing in the world between these two courtyards. Both areas are within the city’s Second Ring Road, where there are still many visible traces of old Beijing. 
In the center of his grandmother’s courtyard was a tall ginko tree. Every day, his family and neighbors chatted and played chess under the tree. In autumn, its leaves turn gold. “The tree was my first teacher that taught me about the shifting nature of the seasons,” Ma told NewsChina.  

“My architectural ideas are closely related to my childhood experiences,” Ma said. His training as an architect has helped him further appreciate the beauty of old Beijing, where human activity, nature, architecture and urban space merge organically.  

Shan shui, which translates to “mountains and waters,” is a defining concept of Chinese art. It usually refers to a style of traditional ink-wash painting of natural landscapes. In classical Chinese art or poetry, shan shui is akin to transcendentalism – an ideal state of spirituality and nature.  

Ma codified his architectural philosophy in his 2014 book Shan-shui City. For the architect, shan shui goes beyond nature to include an individual’s emotional response to the surrounding world. The concept envisions future cities that tightly integrate architecture, the natural landscape and human social interaction in an urban context.  

“Architects are supposed to be sensitive to the times and society and be forward-looking. It’d be better if they can think ahead of the times,” Ma said.  

MAD’s latest project, “Train Station in the Forest,” is an example of this mindset.  

Slated for completion in July, the new train station for Jiaxing, East China’s Zhejiang Province, breaks from China’s typical train station designs, which often involve a giant structure set behind a large, open square.  

The main train platforms are underground. Natural light comes through skylights and glass walls. The ground floor is an open park with abundant greenery, providing a space for locals and travelers to find some peace and quiet.  

This idea, Ma said, “makes the architecture disappear and brings the city back to its people.”  

His approach is central to other recent projects. Harbin Opera House, completed in 2015 near the Songhua River in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, sinuously stretches like snow-capped mountains sloping into the wintry northern city. Quzhou Sports Campus, one of Ma’s projects set for completion in 2021, is designed to be hidden in an enormous sports park with hills and a lake. The sports venues are embedded into the park, their greenery-covered facades disappearing into the park. The buildings are part of the landscape.  

“I have no intention to build something magnificent, something exclusive to urban elites and educated people with refined tastes. What I want to create is space that allows the most common person who struggles to live in the city’s rat race be able to have a break,” Ma told NewsChina.  

Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing, a rare controversial project Ma says reflects a mountainous landscape, although many criticize it for being out of step with its surroundings

Monumental Maverick 
After graduating from the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture in 1999, Ma enrolled at Yale University where he was taught by Canadian American architect Frank Gehry and Iraqi born-British architect Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize and a major figure in late 20th and early 21st century architecture.  

Hadid had a reputation for being short tempered, but was very patient with her students. She encouraged them to think freely and create independently. 

“She was an artist who always stayed true to herself,” Ma told NewsChina, stressing that the independent spirit he gained from his mentor influenced his entire creative career.  

In 2002, Ma proposed his ambitious “Floating Island” design for the former site of the World Trade Center in New York City. The project imagined a massive green space suspended above lower Manhattan, allowing people to work, dine, shop and have a break “in a cloud.”  

In stark contrast from other proposals for Ground Zero, most of which featured conventional monuments, Ma’s bold futuristic scheme cast away the lingering sorrow and encouraged people to look forward. The design was not chosen but earned him widespread recognition in New York’s architecture circles.  

Though not intentional, the design embodied the architect’s shan-shui city concept.  

“Nature, freehand style and artistic conception – it seems that the ideas I keep talking about today can all be found in my earliest projects,” Ma told NewsChina.  

Ma returned to China and founded MAD Architects in 2004. The name MAD is not only short for Ma Design, but also manifests the spirit of independence, rebellion and unconventionality.  

Ma and his team participated in many open tenders over the years, proposing roughly 200 projects that were ultimately not chosen. In China, clients or juries called his designs “too new,” “too horrible” or “too costly.” He decided to take his designs abroad.  

In 2006, then 30-year-old Ma won a competition to design Absolute World, a twintower condominium complex in Mississauga, Canada, making him the first Chinese architect to win a landmark project overseas. Ma’s design outshone 92 other proposals from 70 countries.  

Absolute World consists of two curved high-rises, 56- and 50-stories tall. Their twisting exteriors express the fluidity that defines the natural world. Central to the city’s skyline, the two tower’s graceful lines make them appear as if they are dancing together. Residents fondly call the tallest building “Marilyn Monroe Tower” for its curvaceous figure.  

Absolute World is Ma’s answer to the listless, boxy modern urban buildings that are void of any human emotion.  

“The concept of the tower at the beginning was very simple. We just wanted to make something organic but different, more natural and more soft and not something too strong that would remind people of money or power,” Ma said.  

Built for Independence 
Ma’s international reputation earned him many offers for projects at home. However, his shan-shui city philosophy often ran against conservative views in China. Critics said his work was detached from its surroundings, calling it “too avant-garde” and “too Western.”  

A stark example is the black glass twin towers of Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing. Completed in 2017 after six years of construction, the complex looms over nearby residential areas and has been largely panned for not fitting in with the cityscape.  

Located on the southwestern edge of Chaoyang Park, the largest park in the city’s central business district, the complex comprises of 10 jet-black buildings chock-full of curvy surfaces and sharp circular spires amid quite hard landscaping.  

Against the lake and forests of the park, the buildings are supposed to recall the mountains and rocks of classical Chinese inkwash paintings. But the complex has been derided for not conforming to the white, box-like commercial high-rises and residential buildings in the area. Netizens dubbed it “Batman’s lair” and the “Death Star” for its ominous look. Amid the controversy, architectural historian Wang Mingxian collaged a photo of Chaoyang Park Plaza into a classical landscape painting, showing how the buildings blend with the natural scenery.  

“If they think this complex is at odds with its surroundings, that’s not my fault. The fault lies in the surrounding environment itself. It is the ubiquitous lifeless matchboxlike buildings that have turned our cities into an emotionless and insensitive space severed from humanity and the city’s own culture and history,” Ma said.  

But the architect said this was not an act of defiance. “It’s constructive criticism,” he told NewsChina.  

In MAD’s 16 years, it has expanded from a few members to a team of over 150 designers from all over the world. But the firm does not have a marketing department, which means that anyone seeking to collaborate with Ma needs to fully accept his design ideas.  

In 2014, MAD won the international design competition for Lucas Museum of Narrative Art commissioned by Star Wars creator George Lucas. This time, Ma defeated his master Zaha Hadid.  

Under construction in Exposition Park, Los Angeles, the museum will house the filmmaker’s private collection of paintings, illustrations, photography, digital art and movie memorabilia. Its futuristic exterior resembles a flying saucer hovering over the landscape. The ground floor and roof are designed as green spaces for visitors to relax.  

“I once asked Mr Lucas why he chose MAD, and he said ‘Because other architects thought too much about how to display Star Wars imagery,’” Ma told NewsChina.  

“So the thing is that, when given a chance, architects should first and foremost consider how to express their own independent values and attitudes,” he added.  

Every two or three years, Ma makes an architectural pilgrimage to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, the masterwork of his favorite architect, Louis Kahn, the American master builder and one of most prominent modernist architects of the 20th century.  

Completed in 1965, Kahn’s work combines functionality with striking aesthetics. The laboratories of the Salk Institute were designed as a pair of symmetrical towers mirroring each other across a paved open plaza. Down its center, a westward path seems to vanish into the Pacific. 
Ma is impressed by how this work evokes feelings and emotions. More than once, he found visitors standing there meditating or moved to tears.  

“Standing in that space, time and reality seems to disappear and people hear their inner voices clearly,” Ma said.  

“I hope one day I can also design such a powerful and timeless building that not only strikes a chord with my contemporaries but also with future generations. I hope that a century on, people will still feel touched by the emotions preserved in my architecture,” he added. 

Concept art for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles