Conquering the west

So far, the phenomenon of the starchitect has been all one-way traffic – the west exporting its genius to emerging cities keen to establish themselves as unmissable destinations across the globe. An opera house, a museum or a skyscraper to give credibility to a city that was hardly there a decade ago. Now the first architect to move the other way, from east to west, is returning the compliment by helping to put Mississauga on the map. The Canadian city has jazzed up its skyline by commissioning undulating twin residential towers – to be completed later this year – from China’s Ma Yansong.

It isn’t just Ma’s nationality that marks him out, it’s his age. Most architects barely get to design a house until they’re 40, yet Ma is still only 35 and already his practice, the wonderfully named MAD (the website address is a tongue-in-cheek iMad), is building major structures from Canada and Rome to Harbin.

I met him in a London hotel and couldn’t help asking how he’d been so successful so quickly. “What is success?” he replies, quietly, looking down at the pair of fried eggs on his plate. “The world has changed. I gave a lecture last month about [seminal US architect] Louis Kahn. Kahn didn’t even know what he was going to do till he was 40. Now time is being compressed. Now young architects really want success, that everybody should know them. Marketing and image – fame – are more important than quality. You are trusted on an image and people talk less about good architecture.”

He is, of course, right. But he is also, perhaps, being slightly disingenuous. The projects he flips through on his laptop are exactly the kind of megastructures that are all about a single, striking, easily marketable image – an apartment block in the profile of hills, a skyscraper folded back on itself in a horseshoe, a flying green city hovering over another city.

Ma might look to Kahn for inspiration but he is a very contemporary kind of architect. Cool, laconic, good-looking and just self-effacing enough, he is one of a group of young architects including Ole Scheeren (who, though German, lives in China), Joshua Prince-Ramus and Bjarke Ingels, each of whom once worked for Rem Koolhaas’s fountain of invention and bigness, OMA. Ma himself worked for Zaha Hadid, whose alumni have yet to make it quite so big.

I question him about his modernity. “I actually feel like a very traditional architect,” he replies, “when I stand in a Kahn building I feel the same thrill as I think people must have felt 50 years ago, or as they will feel in 100 years. I want my buildings to do that. Architects now can be obsessed with diagrams, with studies and texts, perhaps because they’re not really sure what they want. Artists don’t feel the need to explain their work because in 100 years no one will read the texts.”

So Ma uses very simple metaphors. Hills, trees, stacks, mountains. Isn’t it all a bit simplistic?

“A pool at the edge of the ocean is the simplest geometry, yet you feel connected to the sea. In a forest with the mountains in the background you also feel the connection to nature yet it’s a very complex geometry. I think architecture is about controlling these feelings.”

Ma has no single style, no special signature, and he is prepared to take on any new brief as an exploration. One design for a hotel, the Guardian Art Centre, is near Beijing’s sensitive Forbidden City, so instead of a wobbly icon he has conceived a stack of square plates, the scale of which emulates China’s traditional courtyard houses or “hutongs”. These plates are piled into a series of terraces, some supporting trees and courtyards. A far more modest project also has the hutongs – Ma’s childhood home – in mind: a hyper-reflective stainless-steel-clad blob like a magnified drop of water or an Anish Kapoor sculpture containing a toilet and bathroom, it is designed as an add-on on to these traditionally bathroom-less dwellings.

Then there is the “Fake Hills” project, an undulating apartment block in Beihai and “High Density Nature” in Guiyang, a massive mixed-use building that resembles a rock formation that has been eroded by water and wind. Nearing completion is the organic, bean-like shell of the Erdos Museum in far northern Harbin, a massively ambitious arts centre.

Chinese architecture has been consistently criticised for its lack of originality, as is its industry. And certainly some of these buildings resemble the visions of others – the fluidity of Zaha Hadid or the sci-fi verve of Future Systems, for instance. But those architects have been criticised for their lack of response to place, for a space-age universality that denies the specific in favour of a single, sculptural style.

Now he is building internationally, how Chinese, I wonder, does Ma think his work is? “If you think of a traditional Chinese garden,” he replies, “it is very difficult to photograph, it is all about the feeling you have when you are in it, about emotion, it can be dramatic, sad, sensitive ... You can’t separate out the architecture or a stone or a tree. The Chinese talk about these things in nature because they feel it reflects something in themselves.”

When most big-name architects refer to natural forms they tend to be mediated, abstracted. With Ma, they are taken literally; the profile of a hilly landscape or a forest is recreated as a very obvious trope. He frequently juxtaposes futuristic structures with Chinese engravings of landscapes and flowing hills or blossoms. His proposal for Ground Zero was probably the most poetic of all the submissions, a canopy of green suspended above the site and the city’s skyscrapers on a series of organic, metallic stalks.

But is he also guilty of envisaging the building as an autonomous object rather than a self-effacing part of the bigger city organicism?

“Architects think that beauty is a crime,” he replies, not answering the question. Then, after a considered pause, he continues: “The towers we get to build are so big, so visible, that they are unavoidable. So the buildings are perceived as sculpture before they are seen as architecture. The beauty of the city though is in its chaos, in everything existing together.”

Is he, I wonder, optimistic about the chaotic Chinese city of the future? “Very,” he responds. “The first wave of cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen were built quickly and there is a realisation that mistakes were made. So they’re tearing them down. People think that buildings are permanent but in China this isn’t true, we can always demolish and remake it better.”

It sounds like a lot of work, as well as appallingly unsustainable – but also a very healthy future for a young architect.

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