Book Review: Creative Madness

MAD Works, Mad Architects. Ma Yansong. Phaidon Press, $79.95

a-form-mad-coverFew architects have enjoyed such a dizzying rise to fame as Ma Yansong, who was born in 1975, and now has a flourishing practice in Beijing and Los Angeles. He spent a productive year in the office of Zaha Hadid after securing his Master’s from Yale and burst onto the scene with Absolute Towers, an undulating duo on the outer edge of Toronto. Since then, he has had an even greater success with the Harbin Opera House, a sensously curved composition of aluminum cladding panels and sculptured wood. Those two completed buildings alone demonstrate his potential, and this monograph shows how much more has been achieved and is currently under construction.

As Peter Cook notes in his foreword, Ma’s work has the newness, wit, inspiration and originality that once characterized the avant garde. Today, computer software gives every architect the opportunity to dare greatly, but few have the talent and confidence to exploit those tools creatively. Ma had no doubts. When I first met him, eight years ago, he had completed nothing but a small, crudely built pavilion in a housing estate of unspeakable ugliness. MAD had entered more than a hundred competitions in two years, and had won one—for a project that was never realized. Unfazed by these setbacks, Ma was sure he would soon realize major buildings all over China, and so it happened, within the following decade. In contrast to the first works of other fledgling architects, Ma’s visions were uncompromised. “Unlike professional technicians and service providers, who usually say ‘yes’, architects should raise the intellectual issues and occasionally say ‘no'; they should never be satisfied and always dream of the future”, he writes.

Many of MAD’s proposals and projects now in development evolved from art works, starting with a three-dimensional labyrinth inserted into the office fish tank. They allow Ma and his colleagues to test their ideas on a small-scale before designing buildings that loop and torque, taper and swell, turning skylines into smoothly modeled mountain ranges. So vast is China and so eager to restore its former pre-eminence as the Middle Kingdom, that the sky is the limit. “Astonish me” is the command of MAD’s clients. In Paris, Rome and US cities, Ma has downscaled, creating apartment towers and a museum design for George Lucas that enliven without overwhelming their neighbors. He has shown he can do more than swoopy curves and one looks forward to many more surprises in decades to come. —Michael Webb

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