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MAD about architecture

National Building Museum, Washington, DC 
September 15, 2014

Picture in your mind’s eye the sheer, fog-shrouded rock cliffs depicted in ancient Chinese landscape paintings of the Shan shui style. That’s what Ma Yansong, founding principal of Beijing-based MAD Architects, evokes when discussing his contemporary architecture, which is rooted in flowing metal panelized forms. Addressing an audience gathered in the entry hall among the colonnades of the National Building Museum, Ma explained how Shan shui’s sloping garden landscapes and elemental approach inspire his current work. He proposes a new building typology consisting of sleek, undulating massive forms to resolve the unique challenges of rapid growth in China. By creating a variety of scale and function, Ma believes cities can grow in a viable, responsible way. A graduate of the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture and Yale University, Ma was the first Chinese architect awarded a RIBA Fellowship in 2010.

Ordos Museum model by Fang Zhenning. Photo: MAD Architects.

As he walked the audience through a series of stunning slides of proposed and built works, he highlighted several major projects, including 2011’s Inner Mongolia’s Ordos Cultural Center. Ma rejected the lunar-like desert landscape of the site: “This project is a reference to the image of a desert that has been there forever; by placing a metal building on the desert, like a spaceship landing, it does not carry any identity with it. When you put the two together it creates a time gap, neither old or new.”

Ma’s masterplan for the Nanjing Zendia Himalayas Center refines his approach to scaled communities. This 6 million-square-foot development attempts to solve rapid expansion by proposing clusters of dense urban-like communities. Ma reimagines the scale and diversity of landscapes depicted in Shan shui paintings as a model for large residential development, with the masterplan’s towers, streets, and public spaces finding direct parallels in the rock cliffs, footbridges, and gardens common in this ancient artwork. A series of streams crisscross small-scale shops and pavilions that are seemingly tucked into a dense urban forest of trees. It is in this diversity that Ma sees a new typology for urban growth that will flourish apace with the expansion of China, while remaining rooted in a rich cultural past.