MAD wants to "invent a new typology" for
high-rise architecture, says Ma Yansong


Movie: in this exclusive video interview filmed in Venice, Ma Yansong of Chinese architects MAD explains his concept for a "shan-shui city", a high density urban development inspired by traditional Chinese paintings of mountain ranges.

Visualisation of Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center
Visualisation of MAD's Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center

"A shan-shui city is a modern city, a high density urban situation, but we pay more attention to the environment," Yansong says. "We bring waterfalls, we bring in a lot of trees and gardens. We treat architecture as a landscape."

Visualisation of Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center
Visualisation of MAD's Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center

The concept is based on a traditional style of Chinese painting, which depicts natural scenery such as mountains, rivers and waterfalls.

Shan-shui Chinese oil painting
Shan-shui Chinese oil painting

"Shan shui you can literally translate as 'mountain and water'," says Yansong. "In traditional Chinese culture there are a lot of paintings about shan shui, but now we're talking about a shan-shui city."

Visualisation of Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center
Visualisation of MAD's Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center

MAD is implementing its shan-shui city concept across a number of projects in China, including the Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center development, due to be completed in 2017, which the practice is presenting at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale.

Model of Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center
Model of MAD's Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center

"The project we're showing here is our new construction in China, the largest project so far for us to experiment with this shan shui city idea," says Yansong. "It's a half-million-square-metre mixed-use urban development."

Visualisation of MAD's Chaoyang Park Plaza development
Visualisation of MAD's Chaoyang Park Plaza development

MAD is also applying the concept in Beijing's central business district with its 120,000-square-metre Chaoyang Park Plaza development, which is due to be completed a year earlier in 2016.

Visualisation of MAD's Chaoyang Park Plaza development
Visualisation of MAD's Chaoyang Park Plaza development

"It's quite typical in China to build at this scale," says Yansong. "But those buildings are very often isolated from the environment and isolated from social life, so we're thinking to use nature as inspiration to bring everything together."

Visualisation of MAD's Chaoyang Park Plaza development
Visualisation of MAD's Chaoyang Park Plaza development

The concept of bringing nature and architecture together isn't a new one, Yansong admits. But he says attempts to do so at such high density and such a large scale are unprecedented.

"After 100 years of modern architectural development people still think the traditional courtyard is the best," he says. "But to allow millions of people to live together on limited land, we have to go to the sky; we have to build a high rise. But we can still build nature and social space into the towers. Each family can have their own courtyard in the sky."

Visualisation of MAD's Chaoyang Park Plaza development
Visualisation of MAD's Chaoyang Park Plaza development

He concludes: "I think we're facing a new challenge: how to invent a new typology for high density cities. The shan-shui city idea is trying to bring traditional values and ways of living to modern high-rise architecture."

Ma Yansong of MAD portrait
MAD's Ma Yansong
  • PR machine

    Mediocre, aggressive and nothing new. It’s nothing special. Simply PR work. I am sick of BIG and MAD. They are companies only loved only by first year students!

    • cubert

      Oh wait! BIG+MAD = BAD MIG? Sorry, I’m far away.

  • flytoget

    It amazes me that there’re people that buy this sort of nonsense.

  • james

    So much unsubstantiated hate. What’s the point of pissing all over people who are actually trying to do something?

    • WaxWing

      Speaking as a hater, I would say the vitriol is substantiated! In my opinion the “something” they are trying to do is produce bad architecture, which is going to require an exorbitant amount of time, money, energy, and materials.

      If Ma Yansong was creating a lo-fi noise album that sounded like junk I wouldn’t care, but he happens to be designing potential buildings and cities for people to live in!

      • cralmeida62

        WaxWing, your last paragraph tells all. I couldn’t agree more. This is a big problem with architecture today or at least with some flashy
        architects. As Ada Louise Huxtable referred to in her last book ‘On Architecture’, ”these architects apparently are trained to know how to push the right buttons of the instant WOW…” the rest apparently is not important…
        This is not about hatred and you are not a hater, it’s just the sad reality of projects like these. I had the chance to be in China for some time, and saw their blob building in Ordos. From the questionable shape, general vocabulary of building elements to the detailing, which is a disaster in my humble opinion, you pick and choose…

        If my professional opinion stated here is considered of a hater, I guess I will to live with that label. Cheers.

  • K

    Then you look at the sections and realise they put two-storey high trees on 50cm slabs, and that the whole concept of mixing nature and architecture isn’t resolved.

    Is putting nice trees in a painting-inspired building section enough to say he “invented” something? Hey, look! I just drew a few rockets under my building. Can I say I just invented a spaceship-building typology?

    The problem here is not whether to invent a new typology that mixes nature and architecture or not, the problem is that they have to study both architectural history and nature before they can claim anything.

  • Mac

    Bit far fetched there Mr. Mad!

  • michael

    In my opinion, this is nothing new. The architecture? It could be, but looks like another Barbican estate in London for rich people. I don’t think it is a new typology. The headline shouldn’t be this one.

  • spadestick

    We’re sorry that architectural “theory” and abstract notions of grotesque concoctions are not primarily evident in MAD’s work, but you must admit that they are of a certain beauty to many people, myself included, and I wish for his work to be built around the world.

    Don’t spread hate or jealousy… Spread the love for good and beautiful things. The ugliness of modernised China needs this, even it is trying to capture a forgotten past, tradition or memory.

    To call this work mediocre or nonsense is simply spiteful. Please compare this to the faux Paris, faux Austria, faux Italy’s and faux Scandinavian towns they’ve built and are continuing to be built. What would you call those then?

    • K

      The real problem is that nobody can criticise anything without being called an hater. The lack of criticism is what makes architecture and design so meaningless.
      Past, tradition, culture and memory should be the foundation of a design, not a fancy dress you just put on to get noticed.

    • WaxWing

      It is not hate or jealousy, it’s genuine concern about the future of cities. Despite its density, it is anti-urban! This is Corbusier’s garden city all over again. We found that this type of city doesn’t work.

    • basic knowledge

      I think this work is mediocre.
      I had this kind of project in 1998! Therefore, it is a simple PR machine, as someone said, and to publish this as ‘new’ or ‘inventive’ etc is more than disrespect towards the other architects that have been doing this already 20 years on higher lever. But the media doesn’t care or they don’t have PR machine as MAD or few more studios like this that we see each week online.
      It is a ‘Kardashian’ way of drawing attention!
      And, yes, this is not the contemporary architectural though, but a simple ‘I use splines on my computer’.

  • james

    A “hater” offers up a five word dismissal. A critic would think about the work, and offer a thought-out, reasonable, and DEFENDABLE opinion. You can’t get mad when someone calls out a BS “critique” as BS.

  • alex

    Many people see the squiggly lines and dismiss them outright. They are seen as “un-ecological”, “uneconomical”, “irresponsible”, the critique of the “thin slab with big tree”, “lack of thought”, “lack of integration”, a generally unrealistic, utopian feel.

    This is a concept. Not polished, not engineered and not finalised for construction. The point this concept raises is valid. They are using the geometry of the building mass not as an indulgent, sculptural mass alone, but as a means of scaling the courtyards and surroundings in a manner that allows for this typology to exist within a more traditional city fabric without being abrasive.

    The facades are meant to blur the interior and exterior world, allow a more pleasant space for people to use recreationally and professionally. There is plenty of research that can be done on creating localised indoor bio-climates using interior trees and planting as part of a “sustainable” climate control system. There is plenty of research that can be done about material efficiency and construction methodology.

    The reality is as architects we can raise these questions only in a graphic form and all we can do is present the thesis of “what if”. Engineers make those breakthroughs and make the functional aspects of such projects work. Architects are scientists in an exploratory sense only, and criticising an architectural rendering based on immediate construct-ability shows a lack of understanding of the design process.

    The chosen geometry can be debated, but is a point of personal taste and background. The non-orthogonal geometry is not a “contemporary” phenomenon. There is plenty of ancient architecture that boasts elaborate forms and often enough with good functional purpose.

    The “Corbu” city models success depends much on the location and city itself. It would be more appropriate perhaps to look at programmatic means of activating these garden-type spaces since function is the primary attractor of people.

    As far as the trees in buildings, the development of that technology could prove vital for Chinese air quality. It is a legitimate concern and even as the “green washing” argument seems rational based on numerous failures to carry out the design intent, it is important to keep trying. Perhaps some day soon this sort of facade covered in trees and bushes will become a reality and not just a render.

    In terms of people willing to invest energy and time in such seemingly “trivial” or “whimsical” solutions to our built environment, I applaud MAD and BIG. There is plenty of conventional construction out there and average offices producing average work.
    There are few enough trying to do the unconventional and we all benefit from such endeavours in ways not only theoretical and academic, but also technological.

    • K

      I’m sorry but I have to disagree.
      Saying that you have an idea that will change the world (of architecture) but is actually just an unpolished concept equals not having an idea at all.
      We, as architects, are obliged to know how things work. I’m not saying that we have to know everything, but at least we have to draw them in a believable way. Where is the purpose in presenting such a concept? Is it enough to be presented to the Venice Biennale? Is it enough to say he ever invented something?

      It will take time and money just to refine an unpolished concept even before you start the engineering process.

      When you put trees inside a building you have to think about a structure that could hold trees, soil and water. Trees like the ones shown in those sections could take up to a floor for the root system and you have to ensure this will not damage structure, insulation and waterproofing. This, again, will cost money, then add maintenance. Where is sustainability in all of that? I would very much like to see research or development in this field, but adding trees on 50cm slabs, again, doesn’t add anything to the discussion; in this case they just look nice in the sections.

      Utopias, the discussion on a possible merge of nature and architecture, the formal language of a building are all things every architect is interested in, but what I see here has no substance.

  • cJo

    “But those buildings are very often isolated from the environment and isolated from social life, so we’re thinking to use nature as inspiration to bring everything together.”

    And these buildings help? They look bleak, dark, slick. China doesn’t need skyscrapers. There are ways to have density without towers or ridiculous design exercises from MAD et al.

    If Ma wants to help China, the best thing is for him to bow out of his profession. It’s disastrous that China’s cities are relying so heavily on starchitects for their inspiration and direction. I see tons of fancy, high brow designs, but very little substance behind them… unless you count taking inspiration from Mountains to be enough.

  • cJo

    Hear hear!

  • Ralph Kent

    More ghost town buildings by MAD. How’s that music hall in ORDOS working out? Open one day?

  • Scott.

    It looks nice. That’s all I can say.

    • I agree. I’m not an architect (although I was once told that architecture would be a suitable field for me), so it’s fascinating to read the arguing back and forth below. I just really like the way this looks.

      • Jermaine Dupree

        You didn’t contribute to the argument at all.