Chinese architect’s nature-infused buildings take world by storm

Awards flow for Beijing-based Ma Yansong, a protégé of Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, whose work confronts what he sees as the coldness of a lot of modern architecture

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2016, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2016, 7:26pm

Ma Yansong remembers the exact moment that – subconsciously, at least – he decided to become a designer.

He was with his mother, an environmental engineer, at her lab in Beijing, examining a cup of polluted water. “My mother put something in the cup, and the water immediately changed colour and became clear. I’m not sure if you could drink it, but it showed me magic, that nature is important and that humans can change it. Of course, it also made me wonder why people had to make the water dirty in the first place.”

That driving curiosity, and a gradually evolving awareness of the environment, has made Ma, 41, one of the most avant-garde designers of his generation, known for his ability to merge landscapes with the strictures of architecture for what he likes to describe as “human-scale design.”

Based in Beijing, where he runs MAD Architects, Ma is more often than not on a plane these days. Recently he was overseeing a project in Istanbul before dropping into Los Angeles for a couple of days, where he delivered a keynote speech at the Los Angeles Architectural Awards. He is also working on his first US project, in Beverly Hills, which broke ground in May, and his first European commission, a residential development outside Paris.

“I’m more interested in landscaping, which was inspired by my traditional Chinese culture. I grew up there. You see it in many art forms,” said Ma, in the airy, light-filled space of his second studio, in Santa Monica.

“When I was young and used to look at Chinese architecture, there was no clear definition between what was landscaping and what was architecture,” he said. “There were buildings around me, but there were nature elements, pavilions, and it was a mixed experience. Architecture should be about the landscape; it should be beautiful.”

Over the past few decades, however, globalisation has resulted in what Ma decries as “cities that all look the same. “In the big cities, we often make architecture very strong, very machine-like. We talk a lot about function and efficiency. We make modern buildings very cold and there is a lack of interaction with human beings on an emotional level. People like nature. We should figure out a way to make modern architecture that is combined with nature.”

His approach has consistently drawn the attention of those tasked with seeking out adventurous designs: Emporis, the global architect-related-data organization, in 2013 awarded Ma’s striking Absolute World Towers – a pair of dramatically curved skyscrapers in Ontario, Canada. The buildings also received an award from the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Emporis anointed another project – Ma’s horseshoe shaped Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort – as one of the top 10 buildings of 2013, alongside London’s The Shard.

Ma clearly intends to bring his core aesthetic to his imminent work as well. His Los Angeles project, 8600 Wilshire, slated for completion in about 18 months will feature a “living wall” of plants in shades of red, yellow and green. The idea, said Ma, is to make the outside of the building look like a painting, and the inside to feel like a “village”. The homes will be structured around a circular courtyard with fountains and seating areas so it’s almost a private park in the centre of a condominium/townhouse enclave in one of the most prestigious zip codes in the world.

The Yale graduate was a protege of the late Zaha Hadid, and says he learned much from her, as well as his other mentor, Frank Gehry. “In their generation, they treated architecture as a cultural, or even spiritual, part of life, when everyone else was thinking of architecture as more commercial,” he said. “And Oscar Niemeyer really inspired me. He’s from South America, where nature has meaning. And his architecture was not expensive or high tech but artistic and spiritual. I like that.”

Ma’s nature-infused philosophy runs through his repertoire: the Harbin Opera House, completed last year, looks like a series of snow-capped mountains; in Nanjing, another project will feature exterior walls that resemble waterfalls.

Although Ma is a sought-after architect on the global scene, he says his heart is in China.

“Part of the reason I went back to work there is because of all the challenges. Architects like to work in a problematic environment. But there is a contrast of what’s been left from the past, and the new part of the city. Architects have an obligation to present something to our society, that even in the larger cities, we should be able to celebrate nature and humanity.”