A kind of MADness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


Effortlessly stylish in a simple black shirt and jeans, Ma Yansong sits cradling a cup of tea with a pack of flu medicine nearby. He has just returned to his office, in the heart of a complex of thin ancient alleyways in Beijing, from a work trip to France, and looks tired; like someone who simply doesn't have enough hours in the day to accomplish all the things he would like to.

The 36-year-old, Yale University-educated architect is increasingly being seen as a rising star. Potentially, he is on his way to becoming China's first 'starchitect'. He was the first mainland architect to win an international commission: the Absolute Towers in Canada, which came just three years after he graduated from architecture school and two years after he launched his own, Beijing-based firm, MAD Architects.

'I always wanted to work for myself, so I registered my office straight after graduation,' Ma says. 'I was in London [working for Zaha Hadid Architects] for a short time - a couple of competitions [for building commissions], less than one year - and by 2004 I had returned to China to begin entering competitions myself.

'When I decided to come back it wasn't already clear there was a construction boom here,' he explains. 'I just wanted to come back because I was born here and this is my home.'

Ma didn't take it too seriously in the beginning. 'Entering architecture competitions was very easy, it was just like being in architecture school,' he says. MAD entered more than 100 such contests in its first year or so, gaining valuable experience but no major commissions.

Then, in 2005, MAD won one: a commission to build skyscrapers in Toronto. This was big news in the mainland, at a time when the country had no big-name architects and was allowing foreign firms to head the design of all the major arenas being built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The first building soon earned the nickname 'the Marilyn Monroe' for its aesthetically pleasing curves. The Absolute Towers - scheduled to be completed this year - catapulted MAD Architects and Ma onto the international scene.

Residential sales had been so impressive for the 56-storey first tower that the developers asked Ma to come up with a second. He refused to create an identical tower - 'there is only one Marilyn Monroe' - but offered to design a slightly shorter, complementary building. The two spiralling towers, taken together, are more art-work than architecture, their appearance changing when seen from different angles.

'When a single building becomes an icon it is because it is like a sculpture,' says Ma, scratching his head while trying to explain his architectural approach, a four-metre-high plexi-glass model of the towers visible in the stairwell behind him.

The towers have already become a much-photographed landmark and Ma received the Architectural League Young Architects Award in 2006, in large part because of his design for the Absolute Towers, which hadn't even been awarded to him at that point.

The studio rapidly expanded. It was initially staffed by just Ma and one intern but by the beginning of this year, more than 50 architects had taken up residence in Beijing to work in its large, open-plan office, complete with ping-pong table.

'We have young architects from all over Europe, some Americans and quite a few ambitious Chinese architects. Half our team are from overseas,' says Bas Lagendijk, strategy executive at MAD Architects and one of those recent, young foreign imports.

Many of these architects, most in their late 20s or early 30s, are too young to be heading large projects in more established firms and would probably have struggled to find work in their home countries.

'I see young architects in the US, ones older than me, and they are experienced and ready enough for their own practices but there is no opportunity for them,' says Ma. 'The opportunities mostly go to older, more well-known architects.'

Ma is familiar with that particular frustration. 'When we began, many clients saw us as too young - they didn't want to talk with us or even bother to meet with us. That is why we could only really enter competitions; where people had no image of you, just your designs.'

Ma was born in the winding, cluttered alleyways of Beijing in 1975, as the mainland was beginning to emerge from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution.

'I wanted to be a professional painter. I initially applied to study art but they didn't let me in - they said my abilities for fine art were too low but they might be OK for a career in architecture,' says Ma, with a smile.

At Yale, one of his teachers was Hadid herself.

'In school, we didn't talk about architecture much - we mostly talked about contemporary art. She would bring in art books for me to look at.'

The designs Ma and his colleagues have come out with are the type of iconic megastructures that would appeal to Hadid: buildings that immediately convey a striking, easy-to-market style and elegance, favouring flowing lines, eye-catching structural patterns and ambitious facades.

They've created futuristic add-ons for Beijing's hutongs - a silvery egg-shaped structure called the Hutong Bubble, which increases living space and adds a bathroom and stairwell leading up to the flat roof of cramped courtyard dwellings; an otherworldly museum that looks like a deflated football, being built as part of an architectural experiment - the Ordos 100 project - in the middle of the Inner Mongolian desert; and are in the construction phase of a set-piece museum in the northern city of Harbin that some critics are comparing to a piece of driftwood. Others see a shimmering spaceship. MAD has also designed a residential and commercial compound in Sanya, on Hainan Island, that resembles a rolling wave, and several other projects around the world that imitate nature. According to Ma, his company is now working on about 15 international projects at any one time.

In what some might regard as a show of arrogance for a fledgling architect, in 2008 Ma proposed planting trees throughout Tiananmen Square, to turn the concrete expanse into an attractive outdoor space. He met with officials to discuss the idea but, despite a suggested completion date of 2050, is realistic about his slim chances of success.

'In North America, buildings still feel like they are from the time of the industrial revolution: they are all trying to be symbols of power - higher, taller, more imposing. The same thing is happening here in China. I am more interested in looking at what the future city can be; where people aren't building individual towers but entire cities.

'Beijing's old city is like a garden, with planned hills, lakes, rocks. With modern cities and their huge towers this idea has disappeared.'

In another display of arrogance, or impressive self-assurance, depending on your viewpoint, Ma entered a competition for a project in Beijing's central business district and instead of designing just one building, as per the instructions, proposed both an elaborate slinky-like tower and an entirely new blueprint for the whole 12-tower devel-opment. His plan was based on a return to nature, with the buildings surrounding a central lake and hills.

While the master plan was not taken up, his building was chosen as one of 12 to occupy the site, a block south of the China Central Television (CCTV) Tower.

Not surprisingly, Ma does not see his approach as arrogant: 'I want our new projects and thoughts to become more experimental. Maybe clients will say, 'No', but that's OK. It is important to make time to think and try independent projects and ideas.'

This approach should be a positive development for modern Chinese architecture, which has been criticised for lacking originality and style. For Ma, though, there is still a careful balance to keep.

'I still have a hand in everything - the concepts, sketches, development. Two years ago, we had a moment when we could have expanded a lot but I would have lost control. For big architects such as Norman Foster, it is OK for them to have a huge team because he already has a style that can be followed. I am young and, put simply, I haven't found my style yet.'

With that, the stylish, self-assured young architect finishes his tea, picks up his flu medicine and heads upstairs to see what his young international team is thinking up next.