Beijing 2050_Tian’an Men Square. MAD

Futuristic present: preserving a contemporary way of living

An interview with founder of MAD Architects Ma Yansong on the ways in which architecture can create a balance between humanity, the city, and the environment

Read intro

An interview with Ma Yansong

An interview by Sofia Minasian

If future cities are about new forms and innovations, new functions. Is there a place for preservation? What to preserve? Memory, cultural identity, old buildings, environment – what is important for architects who are integrating futuristic forms in present cities already. It is especially interesting to discover and discuss in context of Chinese cities, which from one side are full of history and are changing from other side.

Ma Yansong is a the first Chinese architect to be awarded the RIBA Fellowship Award. He is a founder of MAD Architects and a professor at the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture. Ma Yansong is developing futuristic, organic, technologically advanced designs that embody a contemporary interpretation of the Eastern affinity for nature. His vision for the city of the future is based in the spiritual and emotional needs of residents and endeavors to create a balance between humanity, the city, and the environment.
Hide intro

You grew up in a traditional foursquare house. And now your office is located in the Beixinqiao district, among old courtyards and new highrises. What does traditional and cultural urban tissue mean to you?

In a traditional city buildings are small, with more human scale than urban scale. You can see a lot of street life, a lot of activities on the street. And people are more interactive with other people. That’s what I like about the traditional part of the city. A new city is more planned and the space is so large that there is not much feeling of belonging in such a new urban area.

When I go to work I want to see how people live, how people communicate with each other. I want to feel alive. Somebody asked me why my office isn’t in an office tower. I said, ‘I am not doing any administration work’. For me being alive is more important. I can find that feeling in the traditional part of the city.

1_Proposal for Beijing 2050. MAD.

Proposal for Beijing 2050MAD

Chinese architecture and urban planning had a strong inner meaning based on philosophy and symbolism, which we still can see in the structure of the Forbidden city. How does this ideology influence contemporary projects in Beijing?

Right now the new part of the city has nothing to do with the old part. The new part of Beijing is a very standard modern city, highrise buildings, big roads. In the traditional part of the city nature is the core of urban planning. We have lakes, mountains and all those nature elements. Even these elements were artificial, they were planned as a part of urban environment. Citizens lived around those nature elements. The artificial and the natural coexist in the city. The Chinese garden has the same philosophy – buildings, pavilions which compose the garden were created by man. It can only work when the artificial and nature are together. In the traditional concept there are no buildings in China. You always talk about the garden, because the garden represents the whole experience. The important thing is that you have a courtyard in the middle where you have trees, birds. You have your own sky and your own ground. That is life. On a different scale the courtyard, the garden and the city follow the same philosophy where people can coexist. Too bad this is not the case for a modern city.

Now commercial value always comes first, and that makes every city look the same

In a modern city, one builds the infrastructure first – streets, buildings and then maybe leaves some space for nature. But this can’t compare to those nature elements in the past. I think in the future we should rediscover the value of the traditional city. Now commercial value always comes first, and that makes every city look the same. In urban planning we should be able to create more for nature and then we could plan buildings around this natural structure.

2_Shanshui City project.MAD.

Shanshui City project. MAD

Is it possible to keep this identity in the future?

I think so. It’s the same as the previous example of the courtyard, the garden and the traditional city. They are different scales: small scale, medium, large. Theoretically, we can develop this philosophy up to the larger scale and maybe into the megacity scale in the future. I think we must have highrises, so more people can live together. But we should seriously consider to plan the city structure like a garden. In that way the city is more organic. People will have their feelings of belonging and at the same time architecture becomes a landscape.

How did you come to this idea of landscaped architecture? For example, in the Shanshui City project?

Shanshui is a Chinese character literally meaning mountain and water. It is not a landscape term, but more about the spiritual status of nature. That’s why Shanshui is also a poem format. It is a part of traditional art about the imagination of life. The tree is not a physical tree in art. Shanshui is not a green city nor only about sustainability. To explain it in a simple way, I built a beautiful city where people want to live, where people have a feeling of belonging. I think this feeling can happen in a garden. We should bring this feeling into the future city. Shanshui is more about how we could develop the traditional philosophy to apply it to the future city.

Buildings mean nothing without families and neighborhoods

5_Hutong Bubble.MAD

Hutong Bubble.MAD

What about the old part of the Beijing. How could it apply to the future? Is preservation a challenge?

The traditional part of the city has a very small population, but now we have 20 million people in Beijing. So how to build a new city is the main challenge. How to preserve it is another one. In Beijing preservation is not our main challenge. It’s a parallel issue.

In our philosophy old buildings, courtyards, neighborhoods were organic. They were built of brick and wood. But how they were organized is more important. The material itself is very organic, which also means it will not last forever. And they are different from the European building, where they use stone that can last forever. It means life can be changed, recycled, rebuilt. I don’t think we should keep those buildings as a scenario. Now we keep some buildings for people to look at. I do not think it’s right. We must transform those old buildings into something more contemporary so modern people can live in and enjoy a very special way of living.

Like the transformation that you made with the Hutong Bubble project?

Yes. A lot of foursquare houses are in poor condition, a lot of them don’t have bathrooms. People who live there want to move out because of these poor conditions. After they move out, rich people come in, buy and change those houses. Those original families moving out actually means the breakdown of neighborhoods and social life. It’s not right. Families and the life is more important. Buildings mean nothing without families and neighborhoods.

To keep original families staying is the key point. That’s why we won’t just improve their living conditions, but also provide them amenities they need. Hutong bubble is more like a structure, which is different from traditional architecture. It’s an abstract, reflected object. The object blends into the neighborhood and disappears. By doing this we preserve a contemporary way of living.

The people who live there will feel that they are a part of a modern city, not living in the past. We can totally do some changes that focus not only on buildings. To me, the neighborhood and social life is more important.

Chinese cities include ancient culture as well as European colonial buildings, such as the Bund in Shanghai and also cities are being developed with new futuristic architecture. What should be preserved from this multilayered context ? What will have a meaning to future cities?

I respect all history. To me, architecture is just tiny pieces. What I want to look more into is urban organization. I think that the future city is more about environment. We can keep buildings from the past and transform them. What is more important is how we plan the city. It is a different issue in the architecture. I don’t mind having different styles.

Architecture has to change because we have new social needs. We have more people, so we must have highrises and new functions. In this way new urban form will look different from the past.

4_Hutong Bubble.MAD.

Hutong Bubble. MAD

MAD created proposals for Beijing 2050. What drove you into this vision?

Future solutions come from current challenges. The proposals we have reflect current issues we are facing in the city. One is the Bubble proposal, and the other one is trees covering Tiananmen Square. This project is about public space. In our country we have so many empty spaces but they are not for public use. Tiananmen Square is a political and symbolic square, it should be a public space for people. If we can transform this place into something more green and more open, our social value will be shifted. Other cities don’t have empty space for no use. We are trying to solve the issue now. Actually it could be realized anytime. It does not have to be 2050. Hutong Bubble is already realized. Another proposal we made is ‘Floating city’. It is about high density in Beijing. We propose buildings floating above other skyscrapers. And we also propose nature in this structure. It’s idealistic thinking.

Regarding your proposal to turn Tiananmen Square into a park. This place has long political history. What was the reaction of citizens to this proposal?

Nobody said that it’s bad idea. But this is a project yet to be realized. Nobody can say when we can have it. But I believe in the future this space will be transformed. The place is already transforming. In the future it will be realized. I hope people will remember that we had this proposal before.

What if we will move more into the future. What is your vision of Beijing in 100 or 500 years?

That’s a lot. Everyone can be a part of the city of the future. Now we have 10 million people. They decide to live together, they decide to have a green city. We should have a city which everyone loves, but now it’s a city which everyone hates. 

We should have a city which everyone loves, but now it’s a city which everyone hates

We have to think why people want to live together. The traditional part of Beijing was a very ideal city. They had imagined the most beautiful place to live. They created the mountains and the water. They thought of the beautiful life they wanted. That’s why they planned such a city. It was very ambitious. And now we should keep our ambitions. And we must plan how this ambitions can be realized in 100, 200 years. We should plan ahead. If we only speak about the reality in 50 years, everyone will leave the city.