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