Making A Scene: Architect Ma Yansong

Mad Architects

Facing down critics and mediocrity with a bold vision for the future, will he usher in a new era of architecture?

There are two forms through which an architect can make a grand statement in America today: the condominium and the museum. Both require the patronage of the wealthy, but the museum—as an institution at the intersection of culture, politics, money, and identity—continues to reign supreme as the ultimate expression of the discipline. But it’s also the bigger target. In the era of social media, not only is everyone a critic, but these tools of outrage can overwhelm almost any project no matter who is involved. Can architecture still put forth a powerful agenda?

Architect Ma Yansong thinks so. Based in Beijing, with offices in New York and Los Angeles, the soft-spoken yet refreshingly candid talent has emerged as a somewhat polarizing figure since founding his firm, MAD Architects, in 2004. In many ways, his burgeoning career represents a very new-millennium approach and aesthetic.

Ma, 41, was born and raised in China’s capital and graduated from both Yale University and the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture. He produces work that looks and feels like much of the cutting-edge design you’d see from other jet-setting architects but is grounded in a traditional Chinese mindset. “Most contemporary architecture today is a continuation of modernism,” he says. “Now we’re entering a new era.”

A new era, indeed. His designs, from a sinewy, gleaming-white opera house for the city of Harbin in northeast China, to the undulating residential Absolute Towers in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, make clear his love of organic shapes and soft corners. The towers, built in 2012, have since been nicknamed the Marilyn Monroe Towers for their curvaceousness. For Shanshui City, an ongoing city-of-the-future concept, he imagines imposing buildings that appear like mountains, and residential developments surrounded by greenery and bodies of water. All these bold ideas are detailed in his fall monograph, MAD Works: MAD Architects (Phaidon).

The Harbin Opera House. The 850,000-square-foot project (2015), in China, was built to handle a chilly climate.(Courtesy Adam Mørk)

Even if you’re not a part of the architectural elite or weren’t aware of his 2011 fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects or his honors from the World Economic Forum, you may have seen his name floating around in our national press—and not always in a positive light. In 2014, after unveiling his plan for George Lucas’s Museum of Narrative Art—think of it as a cross between a circus tent and Space Mountain—on Chicago’s lakefront, it was criticized for its design, its large size, and its use of public land. Among its defenders was Frank Gehry, who wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed, “Please do not dismiss it because it doesn’t look like something you’ve never seen before.” But the hoi polloi had their day. After a lawsuit stalled the process, Lucas halted the project (which had been estimated near $750 million) in June. He will now move it to a different, yet-to-be-named city. “He’s like a child,” Ma says of working with the filmmaker. (“In a good way!” his assistant chimes in.) “George is fun. He trusts his instincts,” Ma continues. “His mind goes everywhere. I like that. He’s very honest.”

Ma’s use of shapes and natural elements leads many to refer to his work as green design. He disagrees with the label, pointing to a sharp distinction between design that is eco-friendly and design that harmonizes with nature. “I don’t like to talk about sustainability, because sometimes I see green buildings that don’t appear any different from those in the past. They’re like a modern matchbox,” he says. “The way a human can coexist with nature has to be at the spiritual level”—in contrast to the stereotype of modernism’s cold rigidity.

With a lot of attention given to China’s image as a factory-filled powerhouse, it’s easy to overlook the omnipresent influence the country’s traditional culture has on its designers. “I can find, for example, that feeling in the traditional Beijing house I grew up in,” Ma says. “There was a courtyard, a tree. There’s a mountain, a lake around you. When I look at my own architecture, I find that I’m not doing the [modern box]. I’m trying to create architecture as landscape. But I’m not copying nature.” He admits that, perhaps, his quasi-green attitude is tied to sheer beauty: “It’s art, but it also reminds you of the experience of nature.”

The Ordos Art & City Museum. This Inner Mongolia project (2011) evokes the Gobi Desert. (Courtesy VIEW PICTURES LTD. / Getty Images)

Sam Crignano, a developer who worked with Ma on the Absolute Towers, is still basking in the glory of the project’s accomplishment. “I was fascinated by him. I still am,” he says. “His designs have an organic quality, as though they were created by Mother Nature. I still get calls from people who want to visit the Monroe Towers. And in Mississauga, some people specifically buy so their view is of the towers.”

While the Lucas Museum is on hold, Americans will have another project to support—and even purchase. Ma’s first in the U.S. will now be 8600 Wilshire in Beverly Hills, a mixed-use residential development that borrows a bit from Shanshui City. Taking inspiration from L.A.’s hills, homes are stacked on top of what looks like a retail development built inside a grass-covered mound. An internal courtyard on the roof creates a communal space for the residences and gives the developers the best of both worlds: retail and condos. Once again, opaque white glass creates a sense of ethereality, parking included. “It’s beautiful, it’s sunny, and the ocean...the people,” he says of working in L.A. “It’s fun. The project is fun too. This, when compared to my other work, is a little bit of a cartoon.”

The Unic Paris. Now under development, this apartment building is near Martin Luther King Park. (Courtesy Mad Architects)

Ma has another residential project under development in Paris’s 17th Arrondissement, and he’s submitting entries for architecture competitions to a host of clients such as Disney. He also designed a door handle for Italian brand Olivari this year, and furniture is on the way from Beijing-and L.A.–based Gallery All. And he’s reteaming with Crignano on new proposals for Toronto’s waterfront.

As much as Ma might seem like a radical visionary from a faraway place, he feels architecture is becoming more universal, in both the East and the West. After discussing his plans for a project with an American developer, for example, he says, “They’re all in a similar mindset. That we’re at the end of this industrial era, but where should we go? This is a sign that we have already entered another era where we don’t think a building is just a building.” What could be a bigger statement than that?