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Ma Yansong’s Organic Expressions

In blurring of boundaries between the natural and man-made, the works of architect Ma Yansong make an expressive statement. Jessica Niles DeHoff writes.

BY Janice Seow

February 15th, 2013

As the head of Beijing-based MAD architects, Ma Yansong has become known for design concepts that blur the boundaries between natural and man-made form. His projects range in scale from small objects to enormous mixed-use complexes, yet they all share this quality of duality: Is it a building or a mountain? A table or a sculpture?

In a December lecture at Hong Kong’s Business of Design Week, Ma explained that his interest in organic form goes beyond eco-friendliness or green design.

“Green is about how people are thinking about their lives, music, literature,” he reflected. “Green can mean a lot of different things to people. I try to think about an emotional idea of nature.” The concept, so central to his work, draws on ancient Chinese paintings with their balance of wildness and domesticity.

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Ordos Museum in Inner Mongolia

The recently completed Ordos Museum in Inner Mongolia (see’s story on Ordos Museum here) expresses this emotional response to site, in a location that was previously uninhabited desert. In this forbidding place the building appears as a knobby landscape element that is shaped by the wind (and perhaps influenced by Ma’s early stint in Zaha Hadid’s office).

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Ordos Museum

“Nomad culture is very grand,” he explained, “so I took this landscape and [brought] it into our building – without trees, grass, flowers. No urban elements.” Even the museum’s atrium is conceived as a valley for light, resembling the carved stone fissures of a canyon. He sees this approach as a useful model for future sites in China’s new living environments, as “the integration of man and nature is not happening in the [older] cities – maybe in these big [new] projects we can make a space for it”.

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Ordos Museum

In an entirely different context, MAD’s Absolute Towers in the Canadian city of Mississauga demonstrates the flip side of Ma’s ideas on urbanism, landscape and architecture. The two vertical forms of the residential buildings undulate in relation to each other, with each tower’s floor plates rotating to create a curvy profile that earned the project the nickname “Marilyn Monroe”.

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Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Canada

Mississauga needed such a landmark, said Ma: “All these secondary cities around the world are trying to appear like big cities,” and icons in the skyline can help to construct a sense of local identity. The towers’ unusual design concept posed challenges in terms of materials and construction techniques, compounded by the fact that Ma came up with the concept at a stage early in his career, when he had had only one year of building experience. Nonetheless the project evolved smoothly into a group effort with engineers and other professionals offering technical expertise, and construction was completed in late 2012.

Musing on the world of design at large, Ma challenged architects to be more daring and to face up to contemporary challenges like the rapid pace of urbanisation. “The intellectual image is to be aloof from urban issues, but then who is building the city?” he asked. “You can talk or never act, or be busy doing things.”

He sees himself as an idealist if not an optimist. “Architects take a risk because they care about society – they risk their own careers for society. We need more idealistic or unreal thinking.” Ma conceded that “there are a lot of things where architects are not experts,” but he stressed the profession’s important role as a creative force for change. “I am still learning,” he said. “A young architect just needs time.”

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