Q&A with Pioneering Chinese Architect Ma Yansong

I sit down with Ma Yansong, the Beijing-born architect who founded MAD Architects in 2004 and is behind the highly anticipated Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles and architectural fantasies like the Harbin Opera House and the Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center in China, to talk about the state of architecture today and some of his recent creations.

Has COVID-19 changed your vision of architecture?

People really need social life in the city. That’s why they go to town, so having a public space is always very important. I don’t think this situation will affect the long term architecture actually. I think now people are using a lot of outdoor spaces, but the buildings are still there and we can’t say that we won’t have indoor spaces in the future. Now, when we do new urban planning, we want to leave open spaces and parks. If you have a very low density area, you can use the space for different crises and emergencies, and in normal times it is also a breathing space for people and cities. It doesn’t need to be as dense, so flexibility is very important, but I think the goal is always to have a good quality public space. It is still necessary to encourage people to meet, to gather, to share, to communicate. I don’t think we should design cities or architecture to divide people or make social distancing permanent.

Do you think the architecture will remain fundamentally the same?

Yes. The challenge for architecture is not COVID-19. We build architecture as a part of human emotion or spirit, and a lack of that quality is the real crisis. Building an architecture that can relate to the human being is the real challenge and the long term goal. Can we create a city or buildings to be spiritual and connect with people? I think the crisis during COVID-19 is also about people staying home, people not being able to see each other and missing nature. They lack those emotional things. I think we can get around this crisis, but I don’t think it’s a fundamental thing that will change the architecture.

Even before COVID-19, your work was already about the connection between the city and its inhabitants through your “shanshui city” philosophy of making nature and humans more emotionally connected in modern cities…

I think this crisis was born out of people’s relationship with nature, like how people deal with this virus, and also because of population density. So it all depends on how humans view nature. We have to understand nature. We defy nature too much. We change this and that and try to control everything. Maybe we should try to learn to integrate with nature.

Tell me about the convergence of architecture, nature and humanity in Gardenhouse, your first residential project in the United States.

The building does not look like my other works. When I arrived in Beverly Hills, I saw these luxury homes on the hill and was inspired by the scenery. I thought about moving part of this hill into the city. It’s like building a mountain with a horizontal green base and then small houses on top. Inside the building, I made a courtyard with lots of terraces for each unit to face it, so it’s like a courtyard house in Beijing where people are supposed to be very friendly and know each other. This is the environment I wanted. We used different types of plants for the green wall so that they grow in different shapes and depths and eventually become three-dimensional, almost a work of art on the wall. Inside the courtyard, in the center, we made a water feature, so when you enter the courtyard from the busy urban street, suddenly it’s very quiet. We designed it as a waterfall for water to flow from the second level garden to the entrance, and there is a hole open to the sky where the light descends from the top. It’s a Garden of Eden feeling. We really wanted to encourage outdoor living.

Describe the cloudscape of Haikou in China, with its curved pavilion that appears to be a wormhole transcending time and space.

It is a very small building by the ocean. The city wants to modernize the entire public space by the sea, so it invites many famous architects from all over the world, each designing only a small building. That started construction first, and my idea was to make a lot of holes. We stand there looking at the ocean. It’s like two different parallel worlds, and I wanted to build the communication between the two, between the ocean and the land. This small architectural space can be a journey, the in-between of two worlds. It is a mysterious space with a depth like a wormhole: you enter it and you go into another space and another space, layer after layer after layer. It is a fairly complex three-dimensional space. The structure is made of a single material: concrete. These are all flowing shapes poured once, so it’s one continuous piece. Inside there is a library, public restrooms for people who go to the beach and a rooftop terrace with a view.

What was the idea behind Courtyard Kindergarten in Beijing with a red rooftop playground whose surface resembles small hills and plains?

On the site, there was a 200- or 300-year-old house with a courtyard and we had to preserve it. I really wanted to be clear about what’s new and what’s old, so the new building was built around the old courtyard house. It’s also single story as I wanted to keep a similar scale to the old building. We also have a yard, but the new yard is round in shape with stairs, so the kids can get on the roof and run around. The roof landscape resembles Mars because it is wavy, rising and falling, and its surface is red in color. We built the whole roof as a playground but, more importantly, inside the new building, the layout is completely open: there are no rooms. All spaces are connected, but in scale and roofline, the new building truly respects the old. The main challenge here was how to build the new and deal with the old, and I wanted the kids to know that they live in a world full of imagination.

Tell me about your collaboration with HyperloopTT on the development of a rapid air transport system, transforming the future of travel and establishing a renewed connection between people and the city.

The Hyperloop is the concept of Elon Musk and right now there is a company, HyperloopTT, which is trying to realize this project. They have a great team of engineers working on technical things, as well as architects and designers working on station designs. The company is trying to make this happen in different parts of the world. Our job was to design the tube itself, how this tube would look in the landscape and in the city, how it could become positive urban elements. In our design, the tubes can be raised above the ground, so there are many concepts that can occur around it. You can use the very long surface of solar panels to generate a lot of energy. You can use the space below for wind devices. I think if two cities need to connect and there’s not a lot between them, if they need a very convenient, very quick and easy connection, if the distance is too short for airplanes, but too long for driving, so that would be ideal. If travel time can indeed be much shorter, the whole world will change as every place will feel closer and easier to communicate with. It would be a different world.

About Byron G. Fazio

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