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Mad in China

MAD is one of the few Chinese practices gaining international recognition, but as Dang Qun explains, they also want to fill the voids in China left by a changing society

MAD architects are trying to establish themselves as one of the few Chinese architectural practices with an international portfolio. They will hit the headlines in October when they are presented with an award from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in Chicago for their Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Canada. Twelve months before completion, ho hum, the judges have applauded its ‘respect for the environment, connection with place, and the urban surroundings’.

Prior to this, MAD’s only other non-Chinese commission has been a 35m2 temporary pavilion in Italy (for luxury phone maker, Vertu), while their proposal for a Kunsthal in Copenhagen has yet to materialise. But it seems that, from now on, the only way is up.


Source: Tom Arban

Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Canada: MAD says that ‘its design expresses the universal language of audacity, sensuality and romance’

MAD was founded by architect Ma Yansong, a graduate from the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture and Yale University. Since 2004, the practice has developed a reputation for style and quirkiness that finds him, and his office, often likened to Bjarke Ingels and BIG. Ma was the first person born in China to receive an RIBA Fellowship and it is he who has received all the attention. I visited Beijing to see the other force behind the company.

Dang Qun, it says on the website, is responsible for ‘coordination, day to day office management and future strategic development of all present and future projects’. This makes her sound like any number of formidable office managers, but she is much more than that. As an equal design partner, she is responsible for a considerable amount of the office’s architectural output. She graduated from Yellow River University in Zhengzhou, China in 2001 and received her masters degree in architecture at Iowa State University where she still lectures. Fluent in English, she is highly opinionated, controversial and a thought-provoking idealist. We meet in late June to talk about the office, her beliefs and the Museum of Wood Sculpture in Harbin, due to open in 2013.


Source: Alessandro Digaetano

Dang Qun, joint design partner with Ma Yansong at MAD architects

MAD’s practice is situated off a hutong − a Beijing alleyway. The word derives from the Mongolian word for a ‘water well’, a clear indication of the kind of outdated, basic infrastructure that continues to pervade many of these residential zones. Praised for their sustainability by Prince Charles on one of his forays into the area in 2008, the quaint poverty of Beijing’s hutongs is a tourist must-see. Less so for those who have to live there.

The many thousands of decrepit courtyard houses, known as siheyuan (see Anu Leinonen’s article), are accessed from this maze of back alleyways. So, just off the busy main street, into Banqiao Nanxiang, past the cycle repair shop and the food stalls, into the old industrial unit … is a gleaming new Porsche (belonging to one of the many trendy creatives now occupying this space).


The Hutong Bubbles in context

MAD’s office is on the top two storeys of an old print works. Here, the roof has been stripped back to the trusses to form utilitarian spaces packed with working models; where many young Chinese and Western faces stare intently at computer screens. Gigantic presentation models, with various cladding samples, are everywhere … and there is a studious hush. Dang Qun tells me that MAD architects relocated here to connect with the creativity and ‘Chineseness’ of the hutongs (reflecting the humble beginnings of Ma Yansong’s childhood).

This ‘spiritual nature of Chineseness’ is something that comes up time and again, and she says it reflects an appreciation of nature − not as a romantic, environmental or anthropomorphic device − but as a symbolic ‘abstraction of reality’. ‘Beijing is all artificial’, she says. ‘It has followed the Western modernisation that you see in nearly all cities, representing money and power. But can we go beyond Modernisation? Can our designs deliver or reflect simple values that have been understood throughout the whole of human history?’ These eternal values, she says, are the ‘instinctive properties’ of place and nature ‘which make you more calm’.


Source: Shu He

The Hutong Bubble, a stainless-steel object that encloses a staircase and a lavatory in deprived areas of Beijing

Even though this kind of rhetoric may sound familiar to Western ears, it is completely different when you scratch the surface: Dang Qun is not regurgitating the social policy agenda of Western architectural discourse; she is not suggesting that there is a deterministic linkage between design and ‘well-being’ nor buying into de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness. She has not swallowed the instrumentalism of the ex-Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, nor the evidence-based policy justifications of many Western architects; she simply seeks to understand an unquantifiable truism. ‘Emotion in architecture is fundamentally important.’

It is increasingly rare that architects are comfortable enough to explain their work. Instead, it is common that architects justify their designs with allusions to scientistic rationale. Contrary to this trend, MAD are designing for themselves on the understanding that if they like it, others will too. This is premised on the notion that they are like − rather than separate from − ‘other’ people.


Source: Iwan Baan

Art and City Museum at Ordos in Inner Mongolia, completed in 2011

They are developing an Orientalist thesis that ‘the greatest architects, mentally, are artists … and the best of them can express their personal feelings through abstraction’. As long as they can resist the temptation to think of buildings as principally art forms, and avoid the tendency towards facade-ism, MAD’s stimulating intellectual capital has the potential to influence and refresh the way that architecture is discussed. For example, as advocates of sustainability, MAD have a particularly Chinese take on it.

Their buildings’ connection to people is so central to their work that as China’s cities grow, develop and change, Dang Qun recognises that the sustainable thing to do would be to knock them down and build afresh. As society changes, so social sustainability changes. She says that she is happy to countenance the demolition of MAD’s projects in 10 years’ time if they are to be replaced by better architecture more attuned to the contemporary situation. ‘Zero energy is one thing’, she says, ‘but if it is a bad building, so what? The most important thing is: how do you make the user enjoy the space? Making sure that a building functions correctly is essential. Rationalisation is how you explain it to others. But the big question is: how do you touch people’s minds?’ Dang Qun is full of crucial questions like this.


For her, architecture is about exploring the relationship of three things: an emotional connection of people to buildings, the relationship with nature, and the way that architecture reflects the contemporary and local condition. None of these is easy to explain in words but they are premised on experience and self-reflection.

In the West, we had the Enlightenment − the Age of Reason − which advocated self-reflection as the essence of humanism. Comparatively, Chinese architects like MAD seem to be at the historical stage of Romanticism.


Ordos Museum

In the Western model, Dang Qun says, the ‘logical garden’ of the Renaissance created an artificial order. By contrast, Dang Qun suggests that MAD is more in tune with the Chinese tradition reflected in Huang Tingjian’s Poem on the Pavilion of Rustling Pine Trees, written in the Northern Song dynasty. Here, she says, ‘the architecture is not important, the pine trees are not important, but the emotional serenity engendered by both is what’s important’.

Putting theory into practice

Our transcendental conversation over, I was brought back to reality with a jolt by talking about a number of their projects. MAD has two major cultural projects in Harbin, in the most northerly province of China: the China Wood Sculpture Museum and Harbin Cultural Island comprising an opera house and cultural centre. Neither seemed to convey the nuance of peace, place and serenity that Dang Qun had been talking about, but these were certainly dramatic and substantial projects. They are ‘forward-looking environments developing futuristic architecture based on a contemporary interpretation of the Eastern spirit of nature’.


Harbin wood museum long section

The China Wood Sculpture Museum is in a growing old city that wants to project itself ‘as a regional hub for the arts’. The design inspiration is ‘frozen fluid’, apt for a city that hosts the International Snow Festival and where temperatures slump to -25 degrees Celsius in winter, but a little clichéd maybe. Only half of the gallery space will be given over to sculpture with the other half dedicated to a gallery for ‘snow and ice painting’.

The steel-framed building is over 200 metres long, and twisted in the middle to create two distinct internal voids. These spaces are for circulation and temporary displays, whereas the main exhibition − ironically − is housed underground in a fairly traditional, rectangular-shaped series of rooms. The interior is effectively an open space surrounded by offices, lavatories and some display areas, with freestanding sculptural staircases. The geometry of the curving walls creates natural recesses for light wells and skylights and the contained bursts of daylight create what the architect describes as ‘scenic moments in and around the building’.


Harbin is famed for its International Festival of Ice and Snow Sculpture; hence the museum building is meant to represent an icicle

At the moment, like many buildings in China, the urban context in which it sits hasn’t been fully decided and so MAD has created what Dang Qun calls (with reference to their Ordos Museum which had a similar lack of context at the time of commission) ‘an arrogant expression of the centrality of our views … without that, nothing gets started’. Coming back to the principles rather than the built form, Dang Qun says that ‘all is artificial. We destroy nature by the very act of building and by being able to influence − to create − the feelings of people who use it, we overcome the constraints of the natural environment.’

Dang Qun is an example of a revolutionary living at a time when the conditions aren’t yet ripe for revolution. Instead, it is all about potential. She believes that she and Ma Yansong have a heavy responsibility. ‘I am worried that we aren’t up to the task. China is moving very fast and we’re in danger of losing our sensitivities. If we fail, I’m afraid the next generation will miss the opportunity to create new cities that are really alive.’ A classic quandary, but one that you don’t hear expressed in such forthright terms in the West any more.

Fact File

Architect: MAD

Photographs: MAD, Alessandro Digaetano, Tom Arban, Shu He, Iwan Baan

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