Ma Yansong Seeks Harmony With Nature in George Lucas Museum, Beverly Hills Complex

Ma Yansong is bringing his brand of "MAD" architecture design to the US from his native China. He talks about how he is applying his "Shanshui City" philosophy to the new George Lucas Museum and a mixed-use building in Beverly Hills.

Ma Yansong1_BWMa Yansong is the founder and principal of MAD, a Chinese architecture firm that just opened an office in Los Angeles.

He’s also George Lucas’s pick of designer for his proposed museum in Chicago, that will exhibit archival film and technology, Star Wars memorabilia, and narrative art, including Lucas’s collection of Norman Rockwell paintings. It will also exhibit digital art and Lucas wanted a futuristic designer on the leading edge of digital — and “organic” — architecture.

Yansong, who has made waves with many projects including Absolute World, aka the “Marilyn Monroe” towers, and the forthcoming Chaoyang Park Plaza, has recently set up shop in Los Angeles, and he’s working on a residential building in Beverly Hills that promises to sprout plants from angular walls and trees from its roof.

He came to KCRW’s studio and we talked about his philosophy of blending nature and building which he calls “Shanshui City,” how, in his view, nature and huge, dense structures can blend in a harmonious whole; why he chose to open an office in Los Angeles, and how a maturing China is developing an architectural voice rooted in its own traditions.

DnA: Describe your design for the Lucas Museum in Chicago. 

Ma Yansong: Some people think the building looks like a mountain. But I think what’s more important is that it looks like a part of the landscaped park. The building continues from a horizontal floating surface towards the sky, so the floor is integrated with a beautiful façade and people can freely walk everywhere around the building.

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Rendering of proposed museum for George Lucas in Chicago; the project met with pushback from critics and locals.

DnA: Did you grow up watching Star Wars movies?

MY: Star Wars movies weren’t in China actually. We all watched them on videotapes. But I think a lot of young people were inspired by Star Wars. They became very curious about what the future will look like. So I think our architecture today should also do this.

DnA: Do you think you are building for that future?

MY: I think our building is very unfamiliar for our society now, because people see a lot of buildings as objects before, and now our building is not a stand-alone object, it’s an environment I would say.

I think the future of architecture is to create harmony between nature and humans. I think a lot of modern towers– they’re more about the strength, for showing power over nature, and now I think that times have changed. I think future architecture is more about integrating humans with nature.

8600 Wilshire, Beverly Hills, MAD Architects

DnA: The Lucas Museum is just one example of that philosophy you call the Shanshui City approach. How are these buildings actually built though? Are they made of organic materials or are they made of more industrial, manmade materials?

MY: Actually we have to build them based on the very latest materials and technology. It’s very high-tech process. But technology is not everything, we don’t want to show the technology itself, we want to create a new atmosphere or experience through architecture. So people come here, they experience the space, they will enjoy the space, they will feel it, they fall in love with it. It’s a very emotional experience. The technology is hidden.

DnA: You have opened an office in L.A., you’re probably the first really pioneering Chinese architect to do so. One of your projects here is a residential complex in Beverly Hills. And if one looks at the renderings of it, it looks like it has a garden on the exterior. Is that a poetic idea or is that realizable? 

MY: We have a “living wall” on this building. But the more interesting thing is we also have a village on top of it. So you can think of the green part as a new horizon, and you will see a floating village on top of the green façade. I think this gives an illusion, because we normally see the village or houses on the ground, but with the Beverly Hills project, y0u will see them in the sky, and we also have a big tree on the rooftop. So I think we created a surreal, artificial landscape. You don’t see anything like it in nature, but we created it so people think that this is a new kind of nature.

DnA: Now what attracted you to open an office in Los Angeles? Was it that specific project or something about Los Angeles?

MY: Oh, my friend wanted to come.

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DnA: You’re a good friend, opening an office for him!

MY: I think I like Los Angeles, because you have a beautiful ocean, lots of landscape. You don’t have enough water these days, but you still have a much more green than my home in Beijing, which is very dense. There are a lot of buildings and streets, very hard surfaces and not much green.

DnA: But the fact you mentioned the drought is quite important, because your project in Beverly Hills and some of your others do suggest the presence of nature in your buildings. Do you have to rethink those kind of ideas when you’re faced with a very real problem of water delivery?

MY: Yes, we have to work with engineers and landscape designers to figure out how we can use technology to recycle water. We must find a way to save the water to use less green, but at the same time to let people feel like they’re in a garden.

DnA: This notion of the garden runs through so much of your work, but so much of your work is huge in scale. Is there a contradiction between the notion of very humane and accessible natural environments for people to be in and gigantic scale?

MY: Yes, it’s a challenge. We want to find a way to treat this building as a new type of landscape. We’re building one high-rise in Beijing, its a two tower office building (Chaoyang Park Plaza, above image). It’s next to a big park, and we designed the building in a way that it looks like sliding rocks. So when you look at that high-rise from the park through the trees you think that it belongs to the garden in the park, you don’t feel that the city is isolated from the nature.

When you’re inside the building, you also find a lot of gardens. We create a lot of public space, vertically inside the building. You take the elevator, you stop and you get out, you see a garden. You can make a community inside this high-rise building.

A rendering of Shanshui City, as imagined by MAD Architects
A rendering of Shanshui City, as imagined by MAD Architects

DnA: As you well know, for the last 20 years, overseas architects have been going to China and putting their stamp on China. Now that trend is reversing, with more Chinese architects taking on the bigger projects in China, and also like yourself now coming to America. Are we now in the phase, in modern Chinese architecture, where a new Chinese voice in architecture is emerging? 

MY: I think 20 years ago, China was eager to modernize, and we had to learn a lot from America and we had to copy the typology from New York and Chicago; we wanted to do the high-rise buildings in modern cities. But through this experience, through this urbanization period, we found something from our own traditional cities. So we started to realize there’s a new way and this is a moment that the whole globe is thinking of a new way that humans should return to nature, which is a global task. In the West we talk about sustainability and green architecture. I think the Shanshui concept is another way that humans can return to nature, because they will think their body becomes part of nature and we can build buildings so it feels like they are part of nature and not isolated objects.

DnA: Do you think this change in thinking goes alongside the growing realization in China about the importance of doing something about pollution?

MY: When you have idea that you want the human being more in control and more productive, you will hurt nature. Now I think all of civilization has already agreed we should protect nature. But I’m talking about nature and humans being one thing, it’s not like we hate nature or we protect nature or we love nature. It’s like nature is our life and our life without nature is meaningless. That’s the new value, I think this value is beyond the technical level definition about nature.

DnA: So you did a project called “The Absolute Towers” which is two huge towers in the middle of a suburb. How does that fit into this philosophy of living in a holistic way? 

MY: We designed those towers in 2005. We were actually challenging the North American way to build a high-rise, because a lot of high-rises, they’ve become symbolic of power and people think they have nothing to do with those things. So we want to build something more natural, we did something very curvy and sculptural and then people gave the name Marilyn Monroe Towers to these high-rise buildings. I think it’s interesting because maybe we treat all high-rise like men. They are so serious and they’re so powerful and rigid you know– it’s not enough emotion. So later on when we finished this high-rise, we found a new direction, because we can show this romantic and then natural feeling through the high-rise.

Chaoyang Park Plaza, MAD architects

DnA: So the nature is evoked in the form of the building?

MY: In that case, not only the form but we also created a full height window for each unit so when you twist the floor they got opportunity to open to the sun. They got a better view and sun.

DnA: Now there’s a lot of Chinese investment coming into Los Angeles at the moment; do you think you’ll be doing projects for some of the developers who are building here? 

MY: I know those developers in China, and I’m not so positive about them.  I think they are more concerned about the market and they treat buildings more like real estate than architecture.  So far I haven’t talked with them in America because I want to talk to people with better taste.

DnA: I read that the Chinese premier referred to what he called “weird” new architecture in China and instead said buildings should be more “like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in Spring.” Did this remark cause ripples in China among the architecture community?

MY: I think architecture is very much related to politics because every building has to be approved by government, so some people are controlling this cultural thing. But I think being weird is something very blurry, it’s not clear what is weird. But from the government’s side to be safe, they will block anything that looks new or is creative. I agree that some buildings have very bad taste, they’re very ugly, but there are also some buildings that are controversial and they’re new, but they cannot be included into this “weird architecture.”

They can control how their city looks like but they cannot control the creative force. If people cannot build in their home they will go somewhere else to build. I think the reason I can come here and do the Lucas Museum was because I did something in China in the last 10 years and that built my portfolio and China in the last 10 years was very open to giving a lot of opportunity to architects and to creative people. I think now, America has more energy and is more open and you can build more things and a lot of talented architects will come to America to build new things.

DnA: And you’re at the head!

MY: I want to be one of those.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Listen to Ma Yansong talk with Frances Anderton on this DnA.