Ma Yansong: Designing An Imaginary Future

by | 10. Nov 2014

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Floating Island in New York by MAD. Image courtesy of Ma Yansong

By Kevin Holden Platt

In just a few years, Chinese architect Ma Yansong (MAD) has earned himself a huge amount of world-wide attention and acclaim for his radically experimental designs. In all his projects, Ma seeks to combine cutting-edge technology with ancient Eastern precepts, and in so doing he hopes to forge a balance between the cosmos, humanity and nature. 

In a utopian future, as imagined by Ma Yansong, the Tiananmen Square in Beijing – the infamous stage for repeated showdowns between pro-democracy protesters and armed government forces – is transformed into a forested sanctuary for Chinese citizens of every stripe to intermingle at the heart of the city.

The tanks that once recaptured the square from peaceful student demonstrators while demolishing the symbolism-laden statue ‘Goddess of Democracy’, would find it impossible to enter the architect’s redesigned square: a matrix of closely planted trees crisscrossing his Tiananmen People’s Park guarding its entire perimeter would function as a massive anti-tank barrier.

Across town, just off the east-west axis that bisects the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, Ma Yansong has created a model for a fantastical Floating City, a “cloud cosmopolis” hoisted atop gigantic pillars that would host digital studios, theatres and libraries surrounded by Daoist gardens and a man-made lake.

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Absolute Towers’ by Ma Yansong. Photo by Kevin Holden Platt


Designing an Imaginary Future

The architect says in an interview that many of his designs are shaped after the forces and forms of nature, and that all are aimed at creating “an imaginary future.”

His radical experiments, aimed at combining cutting-edge technology with ancient Eastern precepts on forging a balance between the cosmos, humanity and nature, have generated not only recognition of Ma as China’s most visionary designer, but also a series of prizes won in architecture competitions around the world.

His first victory in an international competition was with his design of two twin skyscrapers outside Toronto – just three years after obtaining a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University. Ma took the first place by crafting dual helical structures that appear to revolve in mid-air.

Mid-way through constructing these ‘Absolute Towers’ in Canada, Ma’s utopian proposal to create a crystalline mini-city called ‘Superstar’, patterned after a star polyhedron, attracted the global limelight during the 11th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale in 2008.

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Paris Batignolles Social Housing by MAD. Rendering courtesy of Ma Yansong

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Paris Batignolles Social Housing by MAD. Rendering courtesy of Ma Yansong

New Designs in Rome and Paris

Since then, he has swept European competitions to redesign a residence in the center of Rome, near the galleries and gardens of the Villa Borghese, and to build a living complex in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, along the River Seine, with construction on both projects set to begin this year. On being commissioned to redesign the south axis district of Amsterdam, he presented a master plan for a cluster of volcano-shaped structures, covered in pleated shells of solar panels and connected via a series of pedestrian walkways, gardens, pavilions and waterways.

Meanwhile, the architect says he was recently commissioned to design a 4000-square-meter mixed-use residential complex in Beverly Hills – his first major project in the United States – and he is now drafting detailed drawings.

His steady advances in experimental architecture abroad have helped break a de facto boycott on commissioning avant-garde Chinese designers by government cultural commissars who control the building of most museums across China. While recently completing the glimmering China Wood Sculpture Museum, shaped like a wave frozen in time, the architect is now constructing the nearby Harbin Culture Island in China’s subarctic northern borderlands and the Pingtan Art Museum on a subtropical island off the southeastern Chinese coast.

Ma Yansong is a young Chinese architect […] who has come to architectural maturity at a time when his country is beginning to allow the freedom of expression so vital to the artist and sufficient freedom to the economy to allow his ideas to be realized as buildings. [His] design philosophy integrates futuristic architecture with a contemporary interpretation of the eastern spirit of nature.
/The Royal Institute of British Architects
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‘MAD in China’. 2007 exhibition at Danish Architecture Centre. Image courtesy of Ma Yansong


China’s First Global Architect

Meanwhile, his competition wins in North America and Europe “are boosting Ma Yansong’s role as China’s first global architect,” says Jeffrey Johnson, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture.

Johnson, who also runs the university’s Studio X summer workshops each year in Beijing, says Ma’s breakthroughs in experimental architecture and series of futuristic utopian projects are making him an increasingly attractive candidate for the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.

The pacifist ‘Tiananmen People’s Park’ and the idyllic ‘Floating City’ conceived by Ma Yansong “are some of his strongest projects conceptually,” Johnson says.

“These projects would obviously be considered by the Pritzker Prize jury, which reviews both built and theoretical works,” he adds.

Hong Kong’s new M+ museum for contemporary art and architecture recently acquired the models crafted by Ma for the People’s Park and Floating City designs – part of his Beijing 2050 project – and will exhibit these works in the museum’s permanent collection.

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Volcano-shaped skyscrapers by MAD. Model photo by Kevin Holden Platt

Tiananmen Plan – Not a Rebellion

Architects at MAD studio, founded by Ma Yansong in Beijing in 2004, state in a design description of the Tiananmen People’s Park published on their website that the proposal to transform the square at the center of Beijing “is neither a rebellion nor a radical act.”

Changes that play out across the massive square, they add, reflect the shifting zeitgeist of each age. Their complete redesign of the site anticipates the next stage in Beijing’s evolution, when “a mature and democratic China will have emerged, and the Red Square-like spaces for massive political gatherings and troop processions may no longer be necessary.” Instead of hosting military marches, they add, “Tiananmen Square could be an urban space filled with life and the green heart in the center of Beijing.”

Ma Yansong says during an interview that he is certain his master plan for the transfiguration of Tiananmen will ultimately change the Chinese capital, and the entire country, but adds it is not clear whether approval for the design lies days or decades into the future.