An Interview with MAD Architects' Ma Yansong: Constructing Icons, Identity & China's Future Cities

I look into myself, trying to express myself. I think sometimes maybe you have an idea from a dream. It sounds ridiculous but you draw something out of your dream. Where does this dream come from? It must somehow relate to some situation. So what I'm interested in is to keep discovering what is really inside of me. I'm not a genius that from the first moment I already know what I want. - Ma Yansong -

Beixinqiao district, in Beijing, is changing fast: the ancient urban tissue is being demolished as new high-rises are growing.Located in this environment, Ma Yansong’s office sits within an old and anonymous construction. In contrast to its exterior, the inside is characterized by wood, white walls and plants that transform the place into a sophisticated environment.International young architects are busy modeling new organic-shaped buildings on the other side of the world; meanwhile a golden fish swims in the eternal loop of the “fish tank” in the centre of the room.

In the following interview, Ma Yansong explains contemporary cities as environments that are out-of-scale with nature. He believes a new approach must be used, one that breaks the monotonous “chessboard” of contemporary Urban China and re-establishes the balance between human beings and the natural world.


PAR: How was your experience abroad, at Yale University?

MY: I remember when we graduated. Our dean at Yale turned around and said: “The most important thing that you have to do is to forget all that you have learnt at school!” I went to the States because I wanted to open my views. Yale was a perfect place for me. You could see a lot of masters and people with different philosophies teaching in the same building and sometimes they would argue and fight. I think, as a student, in front of these scenes you can benefit a lot. Yale was a good experience because the students need to have a space where one can see a lot of possible ways, not just the usual way of teaching. There were many interesting opportunities for learning, choosing from Zaha, Gehry, Robert Stern and young architects.

PAR: However, sometimes it is good to get out of university... 

MY: University is not enough. I think a lot of young students are watching us, how we practice. It is probably more important to focus on ourselves and on what we are doing, because that is how I started. I read stories from others; I did not listen to just one particular master. 


PAR: What is your design process?

MY: I look into myself, try to express myself. I think sometimes maybe you have an idea from a dream. It sounds ridiculous but you draw something out of your dream. Where does this dream come from? It must somehow relate to some situation. So what I'm interested in is to keep discovering what is really inside of me. I'm not a genius that from the first moment I already know what I want.


Shanshui City Exhibition. Image © MAD Architects

PAR: What is "Shan Shui City" (Chinese: 山水)? Recently you exhibited it in an ancient Siheyuan house here in Beijing.

MY: “Shan Shui” literally means mountain and water but in Chinese culture it is more than that, it is more about how humans express their emotions in a physical world.

PAR: Where does this concept come from? 

MY: If you look at ancient Chinese paintings, you see mountains but they are not real mountains, it is something the artists imagined. The garden with the rocks, the trees and the water - but they set up this scenery that only exists in their imagination. This term existed in traditional culture, but when you put this and the city together it becomes a new term: “Shan Shui City.” Not a city that looks like mountain and water, it is about a future-high-density urban environment focused on people’s emotions: what they feel and what they see.

Shanshui City Exhibition. Image © MAD Architects

PAR: Why “Shan Shui City”?

MY: I think that’s the next wave for urban civilization. Modern cities right now are too much about efficiency and capital power. It is just about environment, pollution, traffic. Every city has to deal with them, but it doesn’t mean that if you solve them you have a “good city”. You and I have a healthy body, but it doesn’t mean that we are mentally healthy. It is very much about mental issues! [Laughs]

PAR: How can we translate this new concept  to urban China? We can no longer think about this like in ancient times. How can we position this new nature in the urban environment?

MY: When we look at Beijing city’s old town; we see mountains and lakes in the city centre, the neighborhood is integrated into the landscape, but all these natural elements were man-made, artificially. It was a grand project. They made mountains, they dug the water so people, citizens who live in the city, will feel they live in between nature and the city.


PAR: What is an “environmental” design, from your point of view? 

MY: We talk about environment, energy saving and sustainability but I think it’s too much about technology. You have better air conditioning, better glass, better solar panels, but it doesn’t mean those who are working in this building want to stay there forever! [laughs] They still want to escape every weekend and still go to the countryside because they still feel they aren’t connected with nature. That is the basics, the fundamental reason why we are starting to talk about nature now. If we say we want to be close to nature, why can’t we let the temperature be one degree less or more in your room, in the office? 

PAR: How do you bring your “environmental approach” to modern cities? 

MY: Modern cities are about efficiency, logic, traffic… benefits. So, how to produce a lot of massive spaces within a limited budget? Now if you want to make a garden in a high-rise you are not allowed. Not because it is a technical challenge, but it is just a question of: who is paying for that? When you plan a city you need a 30% green ratio; why don’t you put that in law? If you design high-rises, you have to put this percentage of green space there and that’s simple!

PAR: Now that millions of people live together, density is a condition of large scale buildings. How can you talk about nature when buildings are becoming so big? 

MY: When buildings become large, trees and mountains look very small. People say we need more green space, but when you have a certain density, the buildings just look so big that you cannot ignore it. When you treat a building as a landscape element, you can start to talk about the entire environment as a whole. In the traditional garden those rocks were artificial sculptures with grass and flowers beside them. Those rocks weren’t real nature, but they had a scale of real nature. There is a way to consider different scales, a garden is one scale, Beijing city is another. I think this philosophy can fit into different scales. I know future cities will be in large scale, but we cannot miss the human scale, to see things with a different eye, but we still need to talk about nature and the human scale.

Chaoyang Park Project, a continuation to a continuation of the “Shan-Shui City” concept, by MAD Architects. Image © MAD Architects

PAR: In your project in the CBD in Beijing there is a very unique relationship between logic and function.

MY: In this area there are very traditional, conventional high-rises. We took the core out so the elevators are all on the outside under natural light. These elevators stop only every three floors, you walk through a bridge into the building. The core is out so that inside is empty. Then inside you have a lot of gardens every three levels. From there you go one floor up or one floor down walking! [laughs] This way you have fewer elevators. Twenty floors now become six floors. Walking creates a public central space where people from different levels meet. On every three levels there is a garden and social space. More importantly, this idea makes the building more invisible because it doesn’t create more square meters. This way, you don’t lower the efficiency let’s say! [laughs]

PAR: What are the potentials of a curved and special shape?

MY: When you throw a random curve into a modern city, it looks weird and out of place. We’re all criticizing modern cities, you need a statement, something to create conflict. It is purely an attitude or the position you take. You don’t have to. If I had the chance to design a whole new part of Beijing I wouldn’t do that, but if I had the chance to design one piece, I hope this piece would become a bomb to affect the area. So it’s a consideration at many levels: architectural and social levels. New York in the twentieth century was a great city. That’s something we are looking for in Chinese cities now. Here they take the American cities as a model; building a CBD and high-rises, but my question is : can we go a step forward?

PAR: Can you?

MY: I think that takes time and a lot of experiments. That’s why Shan Shui City I might say is an idea, an experiment. Now we are in this period and we should experiment. If we do all the right things, so called “good things”, then thirty years later we will have another Manhattan. I think that China has more reason to do big cities than America because of the density of the population! [laughs]

PAR:  New York’s building shapes were based on density. Chinese cities are not dense. The concept of density that creates the logic of the building is not applicable here.

MY: In Chinese cities the density is not enough, but more important is whether they are planning the city with ambition or not. I think old Beijing city was very ambitious, the traffic efficiency or the centrality was not a priority when they planned a building or city. They wanted to create an environment related to feelings … I think how you feel was more important and it is still now.

Beijing 2050, hutong model. Image © MAD Architects

PAR: How do you relate these concepts to contemporary architecture?

MY: I think a lot of cities have a lot of existing conditions. New cities now they just clean everything up and make a very strict urban grid like a “chessboard.”. Every city should consider their conditions, their context, or their settings on the master plan level.

PAR: What about at the architectural level?

MY: The building is not important because you need to give freedom to the diversity of buildings. Beijing now has a lot of new buildings. Somebody argued that CCTV is attacking the city. The Olympic buildings could have changed the strengths of the city but they didn’t - because the central part is very strong, the layout is very strong, so that’s the only reason why Beijing is still Beijing now. The layout is more powerful than buildings.


Ordos Art & City Museum / MAD Architects. Image © Shu He

PAR: In the Ordos Museum you didn’t know what was going to happen on the site, yet all around the city was going up. How did you deal with the non-context?

MY: Somebody had to go first! [laughs]

PAR: How do you design a building where there is no context? 

MY: Ordos Museum looks like a very random bubble sitting on the landscape. In this project the present was absent so you had a landscape with reference to a desert that had been there forever, and then you have a building that looks so unfamiliar, an abstract form sitting on top of the desert. However nothing belongs to the present, so I wanted to create this dialogue between the unknown, between future and the timeless landscape. You don’t deal with the so called past… because sometimes there is no past and future.

PAR: How do you deal with the design in these situations?

MY: In any place, in any city and in any village, somebody has to go first with a master plan at the beginning. I knew a lot of ridiculous buildings would’ve been built around us [laughs]. I decided to focus on the internal space. 

PAR: So, we don’t have to think only about the present?

MY: When I was designing the building I was thinking about the absence of human artefacts, an usual landscape, the evanescence of the present and future. A time suspended like in a dream! The first time I went there, I said: “This is the Gobi desert and so this is the environment we have around our building! Afterwords many other constructions appeared, and some of them very close to our building! Now it’s completely different: you cannot control the next level of recent construction or do anything about it! [laughs] That happens a lot in different cities, even in a well-planned city. 

Collage of Ma Yansong architecture. Image © Pier Alessio Rizzardi


PAR: What is the importance of the iconic in your designs and for Chinese architecture in general?

MY: I think we have to redefine the word “Iconic”, because iconic sounds very much like when you describe a memorial. You build an image to represent something, something we are against: for capital or power or other meanings. If we say that a building looks special, I can accept that but just as a result. A new concept can look the same as an old one, but I hope the result will be the content. The true result is the innovation from inside. I think what you call “Iconic” is a lot of the Olympic buildings in Beijing because they are all very big and very complete, perfect objects.

PAR: People give a bad meaning to the word “Iconic”, but actually Iconic means literally: “representative symbol of something”.

MY: Yes. 

PAR: It doesn’t mean bad architecture.

MY: I think we must change, we must do new things, then something new will happen. They will look different, they will look “iconic” [laughs] but there is an easy way to do it, or a difficult way. Being innovative or challenging on the planning, on the internal layout or arrangement is very difficult, but making images is very simple! So that’s why I think a lot of image-architecture happened in China.

PAR: Why can’t they be both iconic and innovative?

MY: You cannot innovate the content without changing the image. I think the value of CCTV is the context. Beijing’s CBD is high-rises going to the sky, but this building is so different from its surroundings. This makes you question the surroundings and their value. We can talk about a lot of bad things about this building [laughs] but still I think the positive side of this building is its context.


The Bund and its real estate. Image © Pier Alessio Rizzardi

PAR: The Bund area is considered by many in Shanghai to be a root to the past and an ancient treasure to be preserved. During the concession time many foreigners, especially the British, built up bank headquarters in art deco, rococo, and baroque styles, importing a wide catalogue of examples of western architecture...

MY: The Bund... the bund I think is a very strange example. The people call it the “World Street”, for its colonial origins... the banks and the power with their colonial facades. The funny thing about this place is that still now those buildings are banks, or high-class restaurants, anyway symbols of money, power and high class. They are pretty much how they look, so the relation between the appearance, what they represent, and what are inside is pretty much related.

PAR:  I know that you have something that you would like to do with the Bund…

MY: I see people walking on the bund and think: “Oh! This is our heritage!” At the same time behind those facades, a lot of ancient buildings with a real heritage are being demolished. The buildings on the Bund, instead, are protected and valued. What I would like to explain is that these buildings are not as nice or important as others, like the Louvre in Paris, these buildings on the bund are just old, and anyway they are not great architecture...

PAR: Do you think the right thing to do is to eliminate or to preserve them?

MY: I’m not saying to demolish them, what I’m saying is that it’s not necessary to preserve them and treat them as the image of the City of Shanghai. If we study the consequences of this behaviour, we can find many answers about the attitude of building colonial style villas and colonial residential towers.

PAR: What are the consequences?

MY: Everywhere, in China, you see them. People think that’s the good, that’s something we want to cherish, it means high class, it means expensive and it is considered a landmark. Many people are convinced that they want to live in a house that looks European. In Beijing you can see Italian gardens, you see Paris, you see a lot of Venezias. You can see everywhere in China these “architectural languages”. In the end, we don’t need to preserve the Bund, but we need just to leave it there, making its course.

PAR: What would you do with them?

MY: If I could buy these buildings and, demolish them, I’d do it. it seems drastic but if you think about Champs-Élysées you’ll see many new buildings. What I really think is that those buildings are not great buildings! When the British and the French people came here, they built these buildings, but they didn’t build at the same level as they built in Europe. The world already has these buildings in Europe, so why do we have another low quality and smaller version of these buildings in Shanghai? If you talk about the “Forbidden City” obviously you cannot demolish that because you only have one and that’s the grandest! But if you build another one, it’s at the same level as theme parks or Las Vegas! [laughs]

Real estate in Xi'an. Image © Pier Alessio Rizzardi

Also, check out our ArchDaily interview with Ma Yansong here.

Architect: MA YANSONG - Mad Architects

IInterviewer: Pier Alessio Rizzardi (TCA Think Tank) and Zhang Hankun (TCA Think Tank), Edoardo Giancola (Zarcola)

Location: Beijing

Date: 29th August 2013

Text Editing: Edna Gee

Video Editing: Andrea Vertone / STUDIO13

TCA Think Tank is an international research group founded in Shanghai in 2011 by Italian architect Pier Alessio Rizzardi and Chinese architect Zhang Hankun, with contributive thoughts from Joseph di Pasquale (head of AM Project),Yibo Xu Tongji University and Remo Dorigati (Politecnico di Milano). Through the production of innovative projects and research, TCA pushes our understanding of our present condition, exploring the Theoretical Condition of Architecture. (Follow TCA on wordpress, tumblr, vimeo, twitter, andpinterest)

Pier Alessio Rizzardi / TCA Think Tank studied architecture at Politecnico di Milano (Milan, Italy) and at FAU-USP (Sao Paulo, Brazil), getting his Master’s Degree from Polimi at the end of 2012. In 2011 he founded TCA Think Tank. He is now an Adjunct Professor at Polimi, writes for l’ARCA International Architectural Magazine and is a correspondent for STUDIO Architecture and Urbanism Magazine, and a collaborator on several art and architecture blogs.

Zhang Hankun 张涵坤 / TCA Think Tank attained her bachelor’s degree in architecture at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, China and at Politecnico di Milano (Milan, Italy). She practiced architecture in Shanghai, working in the fields of architectural design and urban development, and is now attaining a Master’s degree at Polimi.

Edoardo Giancola / Zarcola Architetti graduated from Polimi and attended an exchange program at ETSAM, Spain. He completed several installations during workshops with Sami Rintala, Dagur Eggersston and Alejandro Aravena – Elemental. After working at studio Albori in Milan, he’s now a member of the “Abitare Minimo” Team at Politecnico di Milano.

If you'd like to learn more about Ma Yansong, don't miss our interview!

About this author
Cite: Pier Alessio Rizzardi & Zhang Hankun (TCA Think Tank). "An Interview with MAD Architects' Ma Yansong: Constructing Icons, Identity & China's Future Cities" 03 Apr 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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