Mississauga was as close to a blank slate as Beijing-based architect Ma Yansong could hope for. For more than twenty years, the sprawling city in the suburbs of Toronto has been searching fruitlessly for an identity. Its first attempt came in 1987, when a national design competition produced a post-modern City Hall that resembled a mutant farmstead. But it wasn’t enough to counter the effect of the featureless apartment towers, shopping malls and low-density subdivisions that spread over the young city’s flat landscape.
So when Mississauga tried its hand at creating another civic landmark, the Absolute Towers, a pair of 56-storey and 50-storey apartment buildings that would anchor a privately-built housing complex, it opened the field internationally. Ma submitted a proposal for an improbably nebulous structure with no vertical lines. Each floor seemed piled on top of one another like an unwieldy stack of papers. For all the novelty of its form, however, the tower was memorably beautiful, with a curve that brought to mind the hourglass figure of Marilyn Monroe — which is exactly what Mississauga locals began calling the building after it won the competition.
“I was a little bit surprised about Marilyn Monroe, but I was very happy,” says Ma from his office in Beijing, where I spoke with him by phone earlier this year. “I went to the press conference and was asked, ‘Why is this building so sexy?’ I didn’t try to make it a sexy building, but what I like is a natural shape.”
The tower is human in its function as well as its form. Each floor has a different layout and is framed by a wraparound balcony, so “there will be a lot of people on the balconies,” says Ma. “You can see them and they can see each other. That’s my vision of urban life, a lot of people integrated with one another.”
Born and raised in Beijing, Ma left China to study architecture at Yale University, where he graduated with a master’s degree in 2002. He worked as a project designer with Zaha Hadid in London and Peter Eisenman in New York. But in 2004, when he was just 29 years old, Ma moved back to Beijing and founded his own practice, MAD Office.
“It had nothing to do with the economy,” he says. “My home is here. I’m familiar with the issues here — I know the places, I know the problems, I know the challenges. I have so many thoughts there. After I came back we did two years of purely research and competition.”
Those two years laid the groundwork for a practice that strives to transcend the technological determinism of modern architecture. More than anything, Ma’s architecture, as well as his conception of how we should live together in an urban setting, stems from a fascination with nature and human emotion that goes well beyond architectural theory.
Though Ma’s buildings are certainly a product of their era — they share the radically unique forms produced by other young architects like Michel Rojkind and Bjarke Ingels — they do not have a consistent aesthetic. And unlike many architects, Ma most often speaks of his work in terms of emotion.
“I think our buildings have very tight relations to their place, and it’s important that I go there and I have a feeling about it,” he says. “It’s different if it’s a natural place, or it’s a new city, or a very urban context. But as long as I feel I can do something exciting for the place — if I can imagine that we build something there, when people visit, they will feel something about nature, about urban life, about something else.”
Mississauga — a space without place, if there ever was one — posed a particular challenge. “It’s quite similar to a lot of the new cities emerging in China, but the difference is that the larger context is North America, which has a long history of high-rises,” says Ma. “All the skyscrapers in North America were very much influenced by their economy. The high-rise becomes a symbol of their wealth and power. They all looked like memorials. But Mississauga is new. They already had some skyscrapers but the new opportunity for them is to create something more related to the people — more human and more natural.”
For Ma, that meant bending the form and technology of the Absolute Towers to the needs of human emotion. “If we look at architecture in the long term, in the old times, people can never do a straight line. It’s hard for them to do it,” he says. “We still think of architecture in terms of efficiency today, but there is a conflict if we think of it purely from a technical level. People will sit in their houses, look outside and think, ‘Why are the buildings so ugly?’ It’s because they meet the building codes and nothing more. I think in the future the formula will change. When it’s not so difficult to build, when it’s not so limited to technology, people will think their emotions are more important in their space to live.”
Ma attributes this belief to his study of the distinctly Chinese environment in which he grew up. He is especially fond of Beijing’s hutongs, the village-like clusters of courtyard houses that defined life in the city for centuries, and he likes to quote the early twentieth-century Beijing novelist Lao She, who wrote, “The beauty of old Beijing exists in the empty space between architecture, where trees grow and birds live.” That philosophy is reflected in two of Ma’s Beijing projects. Hutong Bubble is a toilet and staircase housed in a bulbous metallic shell attached to a renovated courtyard house; Ma likens it to an alien creature that exists symbiotically with its surroundings, modernizing a traditional urban form without compromising its integrity. Another project that is still in the design phase, Huangdu Art Center, responds to the rupture of Beijing’s urban fabric by creating a vertically-layered hutong.
The human relationship to nature is one of Ma’s fixations; lately, he has been particularly interested in traditional Chinese gardens, which harness nature to spiritual ends. “You can imagine one person sitting in a pavilion looking out to the pond and listening to music,” he says. “Real nature and artificial nature all mix together to create this scene. Those trees, rocks and pavilions are what you see, but what you feel is what’s special.”
These days, of course, traditional gardens are overrun by tourists, so Ma wants to incorporate that feeling of spiritual connection to nature into modern buildings. He has already done this in Fake Hills, a vast seaside residential complex in Beihai, Guangxi. Originally, the developer wanted a box-standard collection of towers, but Ma realized this would prevent many apartments from having a sea view, so he transformed the entire project into an long, thin mountain range, whose peaks and valleys create space for large garden terraces and whose shape allows each apartment to face the ocean.
The odd shapes and site-specific nature of Ma’s buildings are a strong statement against the current state of Chinese architecture, which has created a kind of placelessness that defies China’s innate diversity. If you ignore the cues of climate, flora and topography, the outskirts of Guangzhou looks much the same as the outskirts of Beijing, because the buildings and planning standards are almost the same. This was taken to an extreme in Ordos, a boomtown in the Inner Mongolian desert that was planned and built in complete ignorance of its surroundings.
When Ma was commissioned to build a museum in the city, he crafted a deliberate rejection of the city’s rigid form: a bulbous, metallic structure that seems to rise from the landscape like a wayward stone. “The physical context is the desert, and the Mongolian people is another thing,” he says. “They have a long history, their own architecture, but now they have entered a new modern time. Local culture is about people who understand their past, who deal with local material. With Ordos, you don’t see reference to old buildings or any Western or modern buildings. I think it has some feel from the local people.”
Lest anyone think that Ma’s vision is naïve, the success of his projects should tell them otherwise. The first Absolute Tower — “Marilyn Monroe” — sold out the day its units went on sale. It was so popular that the developer asked Ma to build a second tower to complement the first, which he did by rotating each floor in a different direction and giving them a different façade treatment. (“You cannot have two Marilyns standing there. I thought of it more as a family growing together,” he says.) For Ma, not only is it an affirmation of his ideas, it is a sign of promise for his future work. “People like the feeling” that comes from organic design, he says. “And they’re willing to pay more for it.”
Another version of this story was published in the October/November 2011 edition of Surface Asia.
Tags: Architecture, Beijing, China, Design, Ordos, Toronto