Legacy Interview: Qingyun Ma, AIA

School News

Legacy Interview: Qingyun Ma, AIA

April 02, 2014

Coinciding with the celebration of 100 Years of Architecture at USC, and the related panel discussion, Legacy of Leadership: The Deans of the USC School of Architecture held on April 2, 2014, architectural writer Guy Horton has been interviewing the deans who took part on the panel. Five deans were asked a series of questions to get their perspectives on what it means to be dean at the School, how they approached the role, and what its greatest challenges are.


Qingyun Ma


Della & Harry MacDonald Chair

Dean 2007-Now


Qingyun Ma became dean in 2007. He is the first dean in the School’s history to come from abroad and brings a global perspective to the role. He has been instrumental in developing the School’s ties with China, establishing the USC American Academy in China, a re-boot of the concept of the American Academy in Rome, but with a China angle to promote greater intellectual exchange between the US and China in architecture, the arts, and humanities. He also recently become a winemaker.


Guy Horton: How would you define the role of dean at the USC School of Architecture? And is there anything distinct about the role compared to other architecture schools?

Qingyun Ma: First, the dean enables what has been built up in the School’s legacy and tradition to have impact in the present. Second, the dean’s role is to incorporate new voices, newness, new energy. Being dean is a tremendous art, all starting with vision, taking all things into account. The dean is like a winemaker. There is a flow of work and every step contributes to the final result. In wine making you adjust as you go with a view to the end. The role requires enthusiasm, risk taking, and leadership. But as a leader I’m more comfortable as a pusher from behind. Being dean is also like being a curator, I think. You are working with a collection of things that came before you and finding the best ways to let them express their own natures.


GH: What does it mean to you to be dean at a school with such a legacy and such a close connection to the city?

QYM: I’m deliberately ignorant about history, whatever value system I bring will alter that history, what I see as valuable actively changes history. I move away from history and into a space of hope for today, a space of confidence, energy. This is more neutral ground.


GH: How did you become dean and why did you want to be a dean?

QYM: My practice had flourished. I was in a middle of a moment of success. But with this came insecurity. Who will evaluate my success? I decided to reconnect to an academic environment that is western-centric, from west to east, to infuse my practice. I think the reason USC picked me was because of my experience coming from an emergent economy and transformative society, where there is new life and architecture is going in profound directions. The west is more self-referencing and I think USC was aware of this and wanted to look beyond itself. I also defined my academic agenda from the point of view of my practice, a global point of view.


GH: How does this global point of view inform your role as dean?

QYM: There are fundamental reasons to build and design, I try to identify projects for the social impact they can bring, how they can lead to transformation. I try to identify people around that agenda and then bring them in to contribute to real problem solving.


GH: When you came to USC what did you see as the most important challenges to address?

QYM: The biggest one is to establish a reciprocal system between money and ideas. Things are rational here. There is a clear process. There are good ideas but things cost too  much here. I’m used to immediate action and reaction. The US not used to this.


GH: What are the most important challenges now?

QYM: Building the right team, leadership, strengthening core faculty.


GH: How has serving as dean changed you?

QYM: It hasn’t. I changed the dean. My purpose is to bring impact, to be provocative, to bring a certain oddness to the role. I like things that are beyond the usual, beyond normal expectations. Wrong things can be comfortable. So I like to be in the uncomfortable zone of the unfamiliar. As a wine maker I pay attention to how things blend together and how to accentuate differences.


GH: What three words best describe you as an architect?

QYM: Surprising, destructive, transcendent.


GH: What three words best describe you as dean?

QYM: Calm, persistent, entertaining.


GH: Entertaining?

QYM: (Laughs) As in, I entertain others.


GH: What inspired you to start making wine?

QYM: It’s a different way of building upon the fundamentals of architecture. The process is completely self-generative and self-reflective, constantly evolving and gradually correcting.  It starts from a connection to the landscape and the sense of creating a condition which I call “CAN”, Culture, Agriculture, and Nature.


GH: But you also like to drink wine, right?

QYM: I do actually like to drink wine. Absolutely!