Made in China: The Green Futurism of Architect Ma Yansong

By Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing

Photo Gallery: Chinese Architect Greens the Skyline Photos
Image courtesy of Ma Yansong

Chinese architect Ma Yansong has taken the West by storm with his organic, futuristic creations. With proposals to cover Tiananmen Square in thick forest and build a floating city over Ground Zero, no one can accuse him of playing it safe.

Over the last decade, avant-garde European architects have helped reshape Beijing's skyline. Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren's surreal CCTV tower and the futuristic, glowing Olympic Stadium conceived by the Swiss studio Herzog and de Meuron are just two of these new iconic Western imports. But now, a Chinese architect is reversing the trend. Rising star Ma Yansong has won a string of European architectural contests that will bring his experimental designs, which meld cutting-edge technology with an animist's awe of nature, to capitals on the Continent.

In a contest staged by the city of Paris to design a housing complex on the right bank of the River Seine, Ma and his firm, MAD architects, faced off against 95 architects from around the world to seize one of the coveted positions. In Rome, he took first place in a competition to redesign a residence near the gardens and galleries of the Villa Borghese. With both projects set to be launched in 2014, Ma was then invited to outline a master plan for a massive 200,000-square-meter commercial and retail project in Amsterdam's Zuidas business district.

He unveiled architectural drawings for structures that resemble a cluster of crater-tipped mountains. The Zuidas project echoes Taoist paintings of peaks and pagodas, in homage to the ancient Eastern philosophy focused on connecting humanity to the surrounding ecosystem. Its volcano-shaped towers will be linked with a meandering series of courtyards, waterways, and pavilions that organically unite the complex -- and will utterly transform the Dutch capital's skyline.

The Power of Nature

Ma says that the "machine age" drive to build grid-shaped cities filled with cubic buildings that race each other into the sky -- first in the West, and now in China -- alienates people from the spirits of nature and from each other. Silo-like skyscrapers, he says, should give way to structures that emulate the forces and forms of nature -- clouds, mountains, waves -- in cities of the future.

Ma obtained a master's degree in architecture from Yale University, where he found a mentor in world renowned Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Hadid gave him books on contemporary avant-garde sculptors and engaged him in a one-on-one freeform dialogue on the art and architecture of the future. It was in Hadid's class that Ma proposed memorializing the just-destroyed World Trade Center with a fantastical "Floating City" -- a miniature metropolis in the clouds, built atop gigantic pillars, that would feature workspaces surrounded by wildlife gardens.

Despite the September 11 terrorist attacks, "I thought New York was full of hope, and that it deserved something really powerful and futuristic," Ma says of the Floating City design.

After returning to Beijing to open his MAD studio, Ma responded to an online call to design twin skyscrapers on the outskirts of Toronto in 2005. He took first place -- his first win in a global competition -- by designing two curved helix-like structures that seem to revolve in mid-air, and that make rectangular skyscrapers nearby seem primitive by comparison.

"Ma Yansong is not just winning competitions," notes Jeffrey Johnson, who heads the China Megacities Lab at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture. "His Floating City is a very positive utopian vision about creating imaginary futures."

Role Model and Rebel

Ma's victories in international architecture contests have also opened the way for him to design innovative cultural landmarks like the China Sculpture Museum -- shaped like a wave frozen in time -- and the Harbin Culture Island, near the northern Chinese border with Russian Siberia. His experimental designs and advances in Europe and North America have likewise helped propel his transformation into an icon for architecture students and studios across China.

Yet with all his accolades, Ma Yansong is also considered something of a rebel. During an exhibition in Venice titled "Beijing 2050," he proposed transforming the political center of Beijing -- Tiananmen Square -- by covering it with lush forest. Although the design was not explicitly political, it was clearly a gesture toward the square's history as the site of student-led pro-democracy protests in 1989 that were violently suppressed by the Communist regime. In its current form, says Ma, "Tiananmen Square is a symbol of the empire." His proposal to green the square would subvert that heavy symbolism.

"Ma Yansong is the most utopian architect working in China today," says Daisy Guo, project manager for the China Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale for architecture.

Pritzker on the Horizon?

"If there is one star architect in this generation [in China], Ma Yansong could be it," says Johnson of Columbia University, who adds that Ma is well-positioned to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in the future. "His more radical proposals are visionary, but also critiques," Johnson adds. "Yet they are also very optimistic proposals about the way to think about the future."

The Pritzker Prize jury would consider both built and conceptual works, like the provocative Tiananmen Square Forest, while reviewing a potential award.

Ma suggests his plan to remake the symbolic heart of Beijing could have rippling effects across Chinese society. "If this really happened, it would change all of China," he says. But for the present, he adds, the fate of Beijing's architectural future, and of Tiananmen Square, is "still ordered from above, not proposed by utopians below."

Article...
  • For reasons of data protection and privacy, your IP address will only be stored if you are a registered user of Facebook and you are currently logged in to the service. For more detailed information, please click on the "i" symbol.
  • Post to other social networks

Comments
Discuss this issue with other readers!
3 total posts
Show all comments
    Page 1    
1. optional
author 08/23/2013
Good architects often float ideas such as these. Some are very beautiful but totally impractical, but that's OK. The actual architects earn their money by building run-of-the-mill ordinary buildings like barns and factories.
2. Just Workarounds ameliorating Overpopulation
spon-facebook-10000401053 08/24/2013
Perhaps these are mere workarounds that ameliorate the pains of over population. When Chinese policies show real results and obtain real results in population reduction then we will be appreciative. These constructions and architectural contributions are perhaps not worth much if the everything around these buildings is filled with overcrowding and urban jungles.
3. really???
Donatello Anconia 08/29/2013
This looks more like a fetish of digital technology and natural forms than animism. Clearly, Mr. Ma is clearly imitating his mentor's Soho Galaxy under the veil of animism.
Show all comments
    Page 1    
Keep track of the news

Stay informed with our free news services:

All news from SPIEGEL International
Twitter | RSS
All news from World section
RSS

İ SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH




Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Can Architecture Change Saudi Arabia?

European Partners
Presseurop

Politiken

Corriere della Sera

The Truth about Conte

Report on Cost of Politics


Facebook
Twitter