Don’t let the weirdly organic shapes of their twisted and undulated super high-rise skyscrapers fool you: Beijing-based architects MAD are entirely dedicated to building liveable environments for people in China (and elsewhere.) To get more insight, they compiled a marvellously interdisciplinary book called “MAD Dinner — The first book from MAD, China’s hungriest architects” (published in English/Chinese by ACTAR) in which they try to address the state of Chinese society and the problems Chinese cities face. PingMag talks to MAD founder Ma Yansong about his visions.
Written by Verena
When did the idea for the book come up?
Four years ago, we started at this office to question how our designs relate to contemporary or traditional China. And since we have a lot of contact with artists, we found we can learn more about our position in China through conversations. Because, for example, when we built the Hongluo Clubhouse outside of Beijing, we changed three structural engineers and four contractors during the whole process. Due to the complexity of the building, we caused a lot of trouble. But during this design process, we made use of a lot of advanced technologies the contractors here don’t understand.
We found that when practising in China, we don’t only use what we learned from the West. We also have to think about why we’re causing this trouble, why we are making this kind of architecture, how this architecture relates to contemporary China and how it can affect the Chinese society. To be honest, we were a bit confused with what we were doing, so we started to talk with people. Actually MAD Dinner isn’t a result or a portfolio to show our work; it’s to further explore what other people think and feel about contemporary China. We started to talk with the people, for example, to a young artist, Cao Fei…
… speaking of which: You have quite an interdisciplinary approach, having her, filmmaker Zhang Yimou, art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist, writer Ian Buruma and other people sit on a table for a chat. How did you select these?
Actually, I knew some before. Architecture is closer to art in China. And Cao Fei’s thinking about China is totally different from the older artist generation. But at the same time I also wanted opposing voices, so I had to choose some older artists as well. That’s the state of China today: You have to deal with all these different conflicts every day. We worked together with filmmaker Zhang Yimou for the Olympic opening. To be honest, his movie for it tried to present China’s image on the international scene, but I think it’s too old fashioned and always about old things on the subject of traditional China. At the same time, a very young filmmaker, Jia Zhangke, tries to film contemporary China, and he won a Golden Lion in Venice. Interestingly, two years earlier, Zhang Yimou won a prize in Venice for presenting a kung-fu movie — and two years later people see the China of today from Zhangke’s movie. They present China in different ways, and they hate each other.
So it’s really getting more interesting to involve people with different opinions. For example, when I went to get a haircut I talked to the barber and he said, “you architects are making all the shit around the city and all the buildings look ugly!” He’s a man who makes the city beautiful because he makes the people beautiful.
How did you find the taxi driver or the doctor to let them discuss architecture?
Beijing people are very talkative and when you drive around in a taxi, the driver would always complain about the traffic, the pollution, the social security, and about the architecture. We thought it would be nice to interview government officials and also cab drivers who have to experience the city everyday. So we actually had three people sit in a cab and continue to talk with the drivers. The next day we interviewed the head of the Beijing planning bureau, Huang Yan, who is in charge of all the Olympic business. She gave her opinions on how the inhabitants have to compromise while the city is developing. And she stated that everyone likes our city and feels happy about the new buildings like the CCTV Headquarters. It’s interesting to place the common peoples’ opinions next to it in the book because they don’t feel anything about the new buildings. I like this controversy.
In reality, those people could never meet and have this discussion, so we interviewed them separately and then put it together as round-table talk. From this process we can build our own opinions and a clear vision about the future.
Could you tell us about the town planning situation in Chinese cities right now?
Architecture can do very little for this society because the step before architecture is planning which really can affect peoples’ lives. I think the problem in Chinese cities is that we have a lot of open space — but it isn’t public space. You find a lot of political planning in China. For example, all the cities have one place called the citizen plaza with one huge government building in front of it. They’re like memorials: huge, monumental buildings no matter how small or poor the city is. But there’s still the luxury of this government building. And in front of it there is citizen plaza without any citizens. This is kind of typology actually follows Tiananmen Square which follows Red Square in Moscow. Actually this typology isn’t only about this one square — the city itself becomes an image to show something about the government.
Recently, people have been complaining that the urban space should be more human. So we always try to address this challenge in China. We like to make buildings open and low public spaces open to everywhere and we try to break these big walls. We don’t like an isolated feeling. In our future plans for Beijing we even present an open green for people to enjoy. But architects, not necessarily foreign architects, want to make one statement, one eye-catching landmark that can’t benefit society.They just make a huge-scale sculpture, a big strange shape and that can be a landmark. How can that be a place people can enjoy? For example with the new buildings in Beijing, the Bird’s Nest [by Herzog & de Meuron] is very nice because from the beginning they wanted to make a place where people can meet and play games on the weekend. The space is beautiful and open and there are no big stairs, people can enter easily.
The CCTV Headquarters [by Rem Kolhaas] is the opposite: Although it looks fantastic and is structurally wonderful, it’s a big joke because the decision-makers in China are crazy and single architects used their ambition to make something like that. When you ask people around the city about whether they like a building or not, they would just answer, “it doesn’t matter to me.” Because, most of the time, the buildings are objects that don’t relate to peoples’ lives. In this sense, the architecture will become failed architecture.
It sounds like Chinese cities are used as huge playgrounds for architects at the inhabitants’ expense… On another note: We love that there’s a lot of self-irony in Mad Dinner! For example, seemingly bemused, you show all of the media coverage on the Absolute Towers in Canada. After being the first Chinese architect to win a super high-rise building contest internationally, you were praised as well as criticised a lot…
The Absolute Towers, being constructed in Canada, are also nicknamed ‘Marilyn Monroe’ for their curves.
After we won a lot of prizes, people started to question us. It was very strange because everyone was talking about us — but never about architecture. Nobody really cared about the ideas I just told you about. Later we understood that this is part of the game. Because architecture isn’t about itself at all, it’s more about society and the architect should communicate with the general public. So when an architect wants to realise a utopia, for example, our Beijing 2050 project, it’s more important to deliver ideas to the people than presenting just an image. In the future, one can become a successful architect without building anything when he can change the city by giving just one sentence, one idea.
So it’s about concepts mainly. One chapter in the book is entitled “Be political or be polite.” Is this the way discussion is done in China?
Look at the government buildings in China: The architects want to make the politicians happy, even though they knew they were making mistakes. Whether we deal with a government official or a private developer, they are all the same. They have the power and the capital and a different goal and they don’t care much about the city. In this situation we want to know what our attitude should be: being responsible to the city and the people.
One chapter is titled I love nature. A very current topic, especially in China where pollution happens on a way larger scale…
The main image for this section is a note of Chinese money. On the back of this note is the Three Gorges River, a beautiful sight in south China. So the government made this big artificial project with the Three Gorges Dam to change the landscape. Humans can do so much harm to nature… People always say, “I love the environment.” I think they keep repeating this because they already feel a little bit guilty and must have done something wrong. In traditional China, people regard nature in a unique way. Just look at the traditional Chinese garden and how buildings and nature mix and don’t replace each other. A building is never in the centre of such a garden but on the side. Now this has changed and that’s why we try to find a way back to this feeling — even in a high-density city.
The goldfish in the MAD office were the guinea pigs: By tracking their movements, the shape and size of a fish tank was developed…
… but you could also do that with humans and how a building should be shaped best. Images by MAD
One chapter features the Fish Tank project where you tracked the fishes’ movements to determine the space of the aquarium needed. Is there a way to transfer this and track the city’s inhabitants to determine their space?
A fish tank itself is interesting because you don’t really see it — it’s just a space for water. However, architecture in the city, at least here, is more about appearance, what you see from the outside. Inside it looks like a machine with floor after floor, but people are living in there. I think, modern architecture doesn’t take care of people. So, we addressed this architectural challenge with a fish tank. Actually we treat people the same way as fish: They have to feel the space. But since they are more advanced than fish, they first feel the space and then think related to that space. That’s why I like a space to be open and free and lack definition. For example, when you have a continued curve, an undulating space that is like an open stage where people can think freer inside.
Just plain white with a simple bubble for all the answers: the MAD Dinner book cover.
As one of twelve architects, we were selected to present a concept about the suburbs of Rome. These suburbs look actually like any other suburb around the world, and we thought of a way to make it less boring. So, everywhere we go in the world, we find a Chinatown in each city. But they all look outdated and old-fashioned, and they all look the same with all the Chinese restaurants. And that’s also the reason why the suburbs look boring because they only follow a typology; they aren’t real.
Same with McDonald’s in China. When the first opened to sell American fast food, people flocked there. But now they are everywhere, they look the same with the same food. That’s boring because it’s only a typology, a copy that’s not real. So, we proposed a mega structure that has all the real life, culture and activities in it: a real-life Chinatown in a star structure, that can travel. The only way to save the suburbs are people themselves, people with dreams and imagination.