As China races to urbanize, its major cities have become dystopian concrete jungles, hideously polluted and congested, and hazardous to health. Ma Yansong, the most ambitious and successful of contemporary Chinese architects, has produced a book of extraordinary beauty that proposes a utopian alternative and celebrates ten years of his practice. Shanshui (literally, mountains and water) describes traditional Chinese brush paintings, and that concept can be carried over into urban planning. Ma cites Qian Xuesen, a scientist who proposed Shanshui City as a fusion of nature and human settlement—a Chinese ideal that was lost in the mindless mimicry of Western models. As Ma observes, “the fundamental principle in ancient Chinese architecture is the maintenance of the order that governs heaven and earth, and all existence…architecture and environment were considered as a single entity.”
When I first met Ma in Beijing in 2008, he had realized nothing but a small, poorly-constructed pavilion for a painfully ugly gated community. He and his associates at MAD had entered 120 competitions and lost all but two. But he was certain that, in a few years, he would fulfill his dreams, and so it proved. His language is even more fluid and sensuous than that of Zaha Hadid, and he is building all over China. More recently, MAD have completed the Absolute apartment towers in a suburb of Toronto, and a proposal for the Lucas Museum on a lakefront site in Chicago. A green apartment block in Rome is nearing completion, and they have even been commissioned to design a mixed-use development in the architectural wasteland of Beverly Hills.
Ma recalls his childhood in the hutongs of Beijing, where every courtyard had a large tree that was the centerpiece of family and community relationships. Today, “the hutongs and courtyard homes are reduced to quaint amusements in a theme park,” he laments. He understands that the scale of China’s population mandates high rises—there’s not enough room to house everyone in courtyards—and he proposes aerial landscapes that would bring nature to every city dweller. There is little evidence of these in MAD’s work and little chance that a corrupt and greedy society will soon forfeit quick profits for long-term advantages. But, however starry-eyed his concept, Ma is right: the present model of urban development is unsustainable, and China is one country with the means and authority to introduce radical changes. If the quality of life in its cities continue to deteriorate, it may have no choice.
Shanshui City by Ma Yansong; Lars Muller Publishers, $65.