Spotlight: Ma Yansong

School News

Spotlight: Ma Yansong

October 28, 2016

Ma Yansong is the current Distinguished Dean’s Visitor. Born in Beijing, Ma and his firm MAD Architects rose to prominence after winning the international competition to design the Absolute Towers in Canada in 2007. Currently, the firm is working on designs for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Parallel to his design practice, he has been exploring the cultural values of cities and architecture through domestic and international solo exhibitions, publications and works of art. Ma has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Architectural League of New York’s “Young Architects Award” (2016), the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leaders” (2014), as well as being the first Chinese architect to receive a RIBA fellowship. Ma graduated from the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture and holds a Master’s Degree in Architecture from Yale University. He is currently a professor at Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, as well as an adjunct professor in Tsinghua University. 


How did you get your start? 


Before architecture I always wanted to be an artist or filmmaker. I tried both, but I couldn’t get into film school so they said you can go into architecture. I didn’t have any idea what architecture was because at that time in Beijing there weren’t any buildings I liked. I thought architecture was about traditional gardens and temples. The modern image was absent. In architecture school I started to look at Frank Gehry and all these people and thought this is crazy. At Yale, I had Eisenman as a professor and worked in his office for a summer. My final studio was with Zaha and was focused on the World Trade Center. It was complicated. Zaha was artistic and very different from the other architects I had encountered. I later spent a year with her in London, working on projects in China. But they all got canceled so I went back to Beijing and started my own office. We did a lot of competitions and won the Absolute Towers in Canada. Through this came more opportunities. 


Sounds easy, but I imagine it wasn’t. How did you get your office together? 


Yosuke [Hayano] was also from Zaha’s. We were together there. I met [Dang] Qun online. Now she’s managing the whole office. Back then I needed help so I just asked them if they wanted to do competitions together. It started out as just us and some students. We did around a hundred competitions before winning the Absolute Towers. It didn’t feel difficult. It was more relaxed than school where you have to deal with other classes and pay tuition. With this, you just tried and kept going. To be honest, I didn’t expect to win so quickly. I figured it would take a really long time, like it did for Zaha and others. 


What was it like starting an office in Beijing where there are so many large international firms and all the big design institutes. Were you going after similar projects and what was it like to work? 


We just did our own thing and were quite different from the other small firms. We’ve done some small projects, like hutong renovations, but most are big. We often get invited to submit proposals. We’re more design oriented and we present some very unique work at an early stage. 


How do you find your clients, or do they find you? 


My potential clients in China are very limited since we never work with the big developers and they do very typical, safe things that don’t cause any waves. My clients are looking for something different. When we talk we fall into a common language so quickly and want to try different things. Almost every project is like this. 


Beijing is a very special place. There’s been a lot of critique about the appearance and pace of development and there was what ruling, not too long ago about no weird architecture. There’s obviously a lot of contested thinking about the direction architecture and cities should go in.


I think Beijing should be more focused on urban planning. That was the beauty of the old city. Architecture used to be tiny and the landscape was key. This feeling has been totally lost in the new city. I don’t’ think architecture can do much no matter how ugly or beautiful. You just look at it for one second. I think this should be a priority for the government. In terms of style and look, Beijing should remain open. When they released the news [about weird architecture] many people came to interview me because they think I’m weird architecture. There are many examples, like government buildings that look like the White House, a tower like a wine bottle. Things like this. Also, there are so many residential buildings. 80-90 percent of the city is composed of simple 100-meter boxes. Everywhere is the same. They’re ugly. People complain how every city looks the same. We need humanity, creativity. That means you need new architecture. 


Do you see that happening more in China now? 


I think so. After our president made the weird architecture comments, some cities started trying different approaches. Lately, I think Beijing has been trying very hard. I’m doing some new projects and next week we are going to release our new design for the China Philharmonic Hall in center of Beijing. We just got permission to go forward. I think the head of urban planning in Beijing, the same one who was in charge of Olympic projects, is pushing the city to be very open. Every time Rem goes to Beijing he has to visit her. He had strong support from the city. 


Have you done your dream project yet, or what would that be? 


The Lucas Museum


I’ve also always wanted to do a high-rise in NYC and we’ve been trying to get one but haven’t so far. So that’s probably why I’m leading a high-rise studio here. 


What would you do with a high-rise? Hasn’t that been done so much? 


I think the high-rise is a very interesting typology. It’s easy for them to be targets for critics to hate but it’s a condition we can’t escape so we better come up with some solutions. In China we build a lot of high-rises and they are usually very typical and look like Chicago from the fifties. Because there’s nothing really new about them, some people criticize them and suggest we go back to the countryside, that nature is good and we should go back to our past. That’s too extreme. We can’t afford each family to have a courtyard. The city is good but we need new ideas. 


What do you think western critics get wrong about China? 


They tend to talk more about China on economic and political levels, not in terms of good design. 


China as an object of fascination. 


Like Ordos, or ghost cities. People like to talk about making mistakes in China but I don’t see the real interest in the new things that are happening. I also think Wang Shu’s Pritzker was really confusing to people. I mean, Wang Shu is doing unique architecture but the message come across as Wang Shu says the city is no good, that we shouldn’t do modern cities and we should go back to traditional Chinese culture. The message becomes very confused but the great irony is that many of our cities have projects built by other Pritzker winners. I think we need this diversity. My generation [of architects] seems more hesitant to go into the city, or maybe they just don’t perceive any opportunities there. They think the government is so political and that if it doesn’t come them they should just do small projects in the countryside. They are very talented but they are doing projects on very small scales. Sometimes I think the Metabolists, Mies and Corbu, these people tried very hard to change cities. That’s not the case in China right now. 


Now you are here. What’s your impression of LA? I’ve always seen a lot of parallels between Beijing and LA.


Traffic. Haha. 


Are you getting new energy from LA that’s informing your thinking? 


I think overall it’s more relaxed here. People take time to talk. In China, when you try to meet with friends you always feel like you have to rush. Here you have the opportunity to go deeper into yourself. You can be quiet. If you’re always surrounded by noise with too many things going on, you lose opportunities. That’s the overall impression of China for me: people running around and noise. 


So this is like a retreat for you. 


It’s probably this way because I’m visiting. When I see the mountains and the ocean I feel very relaxed. 


Have you tried surfing yet? 


No. I’m not a good swimmer. 


Where do you like to go? 


I try to see as many places as I can. I love going to eat in K Town and our U.S. office is in Santa Monica. 


What would you say to students about starting out? What’s the best way to get going? 


Like any profession, you have to enjoy what you do. Architects, I think, in general today, are not as ambitious in both art and architecture compared to the ‘70s and ‘80s. 


Why do you think that is? 


I mean, look at the art world. It’s very commercial, less idealistic. Less utopian. Less experimental. And architecture as well. If you look at the [MoMA] Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition in ‘88 and these seven architects like Gehry and Zaha, they were younger and they were doing crazy things versus the mainstream at that moment. But right now, if you look at younger architects, I think they are less aggressive like that and trying harder to realize their projects and get accepted by the mainstream. 


Taking fewer risks? 


That’s why your question is important today because at that time people didn’t care about making a living or what is my job. It was more free and you could start whatever. Now it’s more marketing driven. You can’t even enter some competitions if you are a small studio. So young architects have to really love design and love what they are doing because it’s going to be a long difficult journey. 


Do you think it’s harder now for younger designers coming up, given that everyone’s using the same techniques and the same software? It seems like it’s harder to be different and find your own identity as a designer. 


There was an article by this French philosopher. I forgot his name but his point was that has to come out of different environments, not just universities. He also talked how there can be a lack of argument or debate. In architecture, there are so many new things to learn that it can be difficult for students to look within. Students spend a lot of time learning the software, for example. So in our studio, we spend a quarter of the semester on culture, politics, and art in parallel with studying the history of the high-rise. We read books and chat. 


So there’s a lot of discovery happening before anybody starts designing.


I also like to ask them about themselves, to find what’s unique about each student. When you’re learning you’re focused outside, less inside, unless you have a strong personality. Otherwise, you try to learn so many things so quickly that you forget who you are. Everyone has different personalities and interests. That part has to come out as a designer to make the design more emotional, more human. I’m not talking about style. It’s something personal. You have to make your own path. If this door is closed you can never make it. 


For you, was this something that came about as a student or did this come much later? 


As a student, from my instinct I liked nature so I always did this free thing. And I knew I liked Gehry and Zaha. I don’t like machines or heavy brutalism, but later I found Rem to be interesting. I find him to be very emotional. Many think he’s very logical but I think he’s something different. 


A filmmaker? 


Yes. He’s also into culture and art. And Zaha never talked much about it, but I think she was also very influenced by art. She was doing paintings at an earlier stage. She couldn’t explain, but I see something about nature, the human body, and the landscape of the Middle East in her work, something different from the modern. Now, I find my inspiration from these people but at the same time from the city of Beijing. The beauty of the landscape and the master plan was not about function but more about leisure and freedom and natural settings. The city as urban planning was intellectual knowledge or culture that was transformed into physical space. This is what really influenced me, some kid who grew up in that environment. I have memories about this sense of freedom that came from the courtyards, trees, mountains, lakes, and bridges, so now when I’m designing something I think of lakes, trees, and bridges. Some of this comes out. When I was young I also liked science fiction. So it’s all linked. When I’m working on a design I want it to be natural, human, and comfortable, but I also want it to be abstract and not obvious. ◼


▶ Watch Ma Yansong's recent lecture at the USC School of Architecture on YouTube.

Ma Yansong