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‘We are able to experiment directly on the ground’

In conversation with Ma Yansong and Dang Qun from MAD Architects

With the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, MAD was the first China-based architecture firm to design an overseas cultural landmark. We met to discuss the completion of their latest project to date, Harbin’s Cultural Island, an opera house and urban park in the north-east of China. In this interview, Ma Yansong and Dang Qun talk about their views on the future of architecture, both in China and abroad.

Manon Mollard: How does Chinese architecture place itself on the global stage?

Ma Yansong: We belong to the generation who learnt everything from the West. We went to school and gained professional experience there before coming home. We now have to think about what we need to do over here and how to respond to our own problems. Some of the things we have learnt abroad do not apply in China, and we have to understand that. If we want our cities to feel more human, what does it take? That’s a key question for us here. That’s our responsibility as architects – a critical responsibility. We need a direction to be heading in.

Dang Qun: When coming back to China after working in the US, it took a bit of time to get things going over here. At first, we couldn’t get work. It’s only after we won the Absolute Towers for Toronto that we started winning competitions and getting commissions in China, as if we had to prove ourselves abroad first in order to be recognised at home. There is more freedom here, but definitely a bigger responsibility to shape society. 

‘Things move faster here. Projects can easily get cancelled too, which means architects are less precious’

MY: Things move faster here. Projects can easily get cancelled too, which means architects are less precious. One scheme is just an iteration of a bigger idea. We have no control over the logistics, so we just need to keep going. Push forward. Chinese architecture needs to define itself, it needs to be shaped. I am sure it has a lot to bring to the global discussion, and an ongoing communication between China and the West is critical.

MM: Are architects’ preoccupations similar here and there?

MY: I feel that we are still stuck in the modern logic. We feel we can control things. But what if we can create a more flexible space, a better machine? Technology can’t solve everything, it is a just a tool. Sustainability has limitations. I believe in the importance of gardens, particularly in densely populated environments. I consider the temples here in Beijing, in the Forbidden City for instance, to be the most sustainable buildings there are, in the true sense of the word. In our proposal for the Absolute Towers, we started to argue for the integration of architecture and nature. That agenda I feel is global. People live in cities, but they want to go to the countryside at the weekend or on holiday. Why don’t we bring more nature into cities and create urban landscapes? We can’t treat buildings as products. That’s very short-term thinking.

MM: Your buildings are very futuristic looking. Do you like to think of them as sculptures?

MY: I think all buildings are sculptures in some way, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing else to them. A lot of people judge architecture purely from appearance. When you design a tower, or a large urban scheme, you can’t have it go unnoticed. You can’t avoid the conversation turning to the form. The initial idea for the Harbin Opera House was to make the building look like frozen liquid, negotiating the transition from the organic nature of the wetlands to the sharp edges of the urban context around.

DQ: We really wanted to drop an alien in Harbin. We wanted to create something surreal, something that looked as different as possible from all the monotonous residential blocks around it.

MM: Is it important for architects to think of themselves as artists and for architecture to be seen as art?

DQ: Here in China it is important for us to add something that hasn’t been seen before. We want people to question the environment they currently live in, and understand that there are other options.

‘Since the need for new constructions is so strong, we are able to experiment directly on the ground’

MY: I think both architects and artists are cerebral people. Before they talk about what they do, they talk about what they think – from society to nature, from politics to culture. As creatives, they both translate their views and ideas through their chosen language – space making for the architect. But more than the requirements imposed by the brief, it is the architect’s duty to consider the context of their work, to understand the larger picture and set a direction. Architects have a responsibility. They need to have vision. In that sense, it is important for architects to think about what they think, to reflect on where we are going as a society. Artists don’t need to talk. They put their work up. They don’t need a justification of why their piece is good. If you, as a viewer, don’t understand, you just have to think again.

MM: In a country that has changed so rapidly, can architecture be a force to provoke?

MY: People often say of China it is a laboratory. There are new concepts in the making and that is exciting. Since the need for new constructions is so strong, we are able to experiment directly on the ground. In the last couple of years, things have started to slow down, and that’s important too because it means that people have time to think. All our cities look the same – that’s very Chinese. There is lack of soul. People like to replicate, because it is easier. Developers copy and paste, government sets rules and regulations regardless of the sociocultural context.

DQ: It starts to be dangerous if architects blindly follow the established status quo, imposed by the authorities, by competition briefs, by pure habit too. Our true role is to challenge the imposed sets of rules. Architecture should be a force to move everything else forward.

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