So much of China – its economy, its hopes, its struggles, its future – is represented in the country’s cities. They are the centers of commerce and magnets that pull in rural workers. Rapid urbanization has proven a major source of economic growth, and China’s cities will only swell further under a forthcoming urbanization plan that seeks to squeeze more out of this boom.
The buildings springing up during this rapid expansion of cities range from the bizarre imaginings of the future to grim utilitarian structures purely focused on their immediate economic role. In many ways, Chinese cities and the buildings that populate them reflect the social and cultural issues of the day, said Ma Yansong, internationally renowned architect and the founder of Beijing-based firm MAD Architects.
That doesn’t mean that many of these new buildings were constructed with people in mind, said Ma, best known for his Absolute World Tower in Toronto. In a conversation with China Economic Review, Ma discussed why he continues to practice in China, the state of mainland architecture and why he goes out of his way to befriend building contractors.
You went to Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture and after that you went to Yale University on a scholarship. In general, you have a pretty stellar academic background, so you could be an architect anywhere. Why do you choose to continue to work in China?
I am still working in many other places. Not building a lot in Beijing actually. I am building in a lot of other cities, also in America and Europe. The reason I came back was I see a lot of challenges, urban challenges. I think the problems are what attracted me.
What are some of those challenges that you are most focused on?
I believe being an architect in China, I can use architecture as a tool to respond to social issues and cultural issues. China needs a new idea for its cities and architecture. [China needs] to carry the traditional value of how people live, how people see themselves and also to develop a new idea for the future. We know that this urbanization thing is huge in China. It would be a pity if after all this there was nothing new.
I am curious how you see design evolving in China. For example, a lot of buildings from the 1990s are pretty weird looking. Perhaps they looked really modern at the time, but today they look a bit tacky. Why do you think so many buildings like that were built and has that design aesthetic changed in recent years?
In the past 30 years, architecture has somehow shown how people imagine modern life. I think in the beginning, even before this 30 years, there are many great buildings in Beijing. Half of them look like a mixture of modern buildings and traditional Chinese buildings. The other half look like Russian style, a mixture of modern European traditions. This shows in that period how people thought; that architecture represented power. In later times, when China opened its doors, there were more market-driven buildings. So they look like commercial goods, they look like products in the shopping mall. They look different because they have become the symbols of capital. . Those buildings they didn’t really build for people. They didn’t really choose how people were involved in those buildings, and they were very much focused on the look. On the architecture quality, not building quality, I would say they are very similar, very poor quality … Right now is a turning point because people are talking about green buildings, sustainable buildings and public buildings as open spaces.
What do you think is the most attractive city in China? Are there any cities that could be considered a model for the rest of the country?
No, I think … in all these new cities they are making these big towers without any identity. Really I don’t see any good cases today. Maybe right now is not a good time because in the last 30 years people have been very busy chasing this modern image. Maybe now [that] things are slowing down it is a good time to revisit this issue.
One complaint that I’ve heard from architects is that it is fairly common for an architect to do a plan but then not have much control over the construction of it. So corners are cut, and builders don’t execute according to the plan exactly. Is this something you have experienced in your work?
Maybe this is a larger problem for me than for other people, because I think my design is too complicated for contractors in China. Even for the purely technical level it is quite difficult, and a contractor doesn’t have the time
, or the experience to think about it, because they have very tight schedules. A lot of architecture I do has a curvature, has a very unique detail. There is no machine for that … Some people really criticize the architect for not controlling the details, [but] in fact most architects don’t have to be onsite every day. We really send our architects to the site to control every day, and they really fight. This helps a little bit, but you have to control it from a very emotional level. You have to make a friend with [the builders] because there is no standard or policy that says people have to listen to the architect because you shouldn’t be there. For architects, if you are there you try to control the quality, but people think you are making trouble. It is not in the contract, it is not the way it works … It’s not only when you challenge them, but even then the lowest standard can be difficult [to meet].
Perhaps your most famous building is in Toronto, so I was wondering about the differences between building there versus building in China. How would you compare those two processes?
Firstly the budgets are different. In China, you don’t have much choice. You don’t pick all the high quality, imported materials, so many materials and details are made with less good quality, so when you put them together they are not so perfect looking. I think the processes are similar. We make a drawing, and then they give the drawing to a contractor, and the contractor makes a mockup. We give feedback and then they change it. The next time they put the real material on the [mockup], and we visit again to make the final change, and [finally] they will go for it. In China, this is basically the procedure, but the material is not so good … There is a museum we did with a stainless steel curtain wall. Every piece is a curved piece, and it is a unique piece. They were perfect in the factory in south China, but on the way, when the pieces arrived at the site, every piece was damaged. We could only select the most damaged for replacement, and they needed another month to replace them. Otherwise you had to keep them.
One concern about the future of Chinese cities is that buildings may only last 20 to 30 years because of poor building quality, but at the same time China’s economy is starting to slow down. The concern is that there might be a lot of old buildings; Chinese cities might look a little dingy. What do you think Chinese cities will look in 20 or 30 years?
It’s interesting that before this new China, old China was not
super rich [yet] they still had buildings that were good quality. Even traditional Chinese buildings, they are not using expensive materials, they are using wood, but the technique is super nice. When I think about my architecture, maybe they are depending too much on the material or the high tech detail. I don’t know what you mean by quality, because I think our buildings are challenging – the detail and the technology – even in America it is not easy to build our buildings. In general, I think in Chinese cities you don’t have to chase this high technology. I think maybe there is a way to use low technology to build good quality architecture. When we look back in the modern times, the construction methods are not so different anyway, not many new materials. Maybe that’s the way Chinese cities should go, using suitable materials, suitable technology but by creating new space, innovative space environment, urban environment, together with nature and green elements. Maybe we can achieve, overall, very high quality living environments instead of very high quality building products.