For Ma ARC ’02, a natural design approach

With the completion of the Ordos Museum in fall 2011, Chinese architect Yansong Ma ARC ’02 and his team at the Beijing-based architecture firm MAD have transformed the architectural landscape of Inner Mongolia. The News spoke to Ma about his architectural career and this six-year-long project in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

Q When did you know that you wanted to be an architect?

A I actually wanted to be a filmmaker when I was in high school, so I applied to film academy. When I went to film academy, the professors there said I should do architecture. I had no idea what architecture was, but that’s why I went to [undergraduate] architecture school. The first year, I started to read books about architectural history and that made me really interested. I found these stories about different architects and their careers, and I realized that different architects can have such different styles.

Q After studying architecture in Beijing, you came to Yale for graduate school. How did that experience shape your career?

A I think the experience was very important for me. I went to the States because I saw new architecture on the magazines when I was in college, and I thought it was so fantastic. I had to see it in person. And at Yale there was an opportunity to meet those famous designers from all over the world. When I was in school they invited all these architects to come teach, and I found that in this school I could learn from the architects I liked. The more interesting thing was that those architects were so different from each other, and sometimes you could see them argue in the school about issues. You found out that architecture has no rules — there’s no absolutely right thing or wrong thing. On graduation day they said, “From today you should try to forget what you have learned here,” so I was surprised. But you do have to forget what you learn and try to be yourself later on. I think that the school gave me a lot of space and the freedom to be an individual. Some other schools have a very strong style, but I think as a student I was able to explore my personal interests, and that’s really important to me.

Q How would you describe your personal style? What are some concepts that you adhere to or try to project in your work?

A When I spent two years at Yale, I started to discover who I was and I found my interest [in] nature. The relationship between architecture and nature was my real interest. This is my 10th year after graduation, so I think this nature approach is clearer to me now — not only nature as natural elements, but also as how we combine nature with high-density urban environments. When you look at modern architecture in modern cities, buildings are very powerful and big, and I think that while there is a way to connect small architecture to nature, there isn’t yet a way for big buildings.

Q How has your interest in nature played out in your designs? How did it affect your work on the Ordos Museum?

A At the first stage five years ago, there was so much open, natural space [where the museum is now]. Certainly a distinct geometry. We designed the Ordos Museum around the space. There are ways for architectural shapes to be a reference to nature — the types of curves, for example. They are environments that create the emotional feelings of architecture. When the modern city became so big, it became isolated from emotion, and people feel that it is so big and so strong and so cold. So now I think we are more interested in those feelings of emotion in architecture. Not only the natural shapes, but also the natural feelings. It’s invisible and hard to describe. But I believe that’s what’s interesting about it. The reality is that people will enter into the space and will feel the connection between the architecture and the surroundings.

Q Could you tell me more about the Ordos Museum? When was this idea conceived, and what was the process of designing it like? How have people reacted to the structure so far?

A Five years ago when I first went to the city, it was so empty that the only thing I saw was desert. I wanted to translate the local natural landscape into architectural space and give it a futuristic feeling. The idea was also to talk about the local culture, which was the hope of the owner. They’re Mongolian people, so before this they had no modern architecture. But I think they have very high expectations for the future, [hence] the futuristic shape of the building. I think when we presented the building they felt very surprised. But there was big public praise. They liked how there were waves that matched the wavy desert landscape. So a lot of people come now and just sit there with each other. I also created a space within the museum that’s a public space — you don’t have to go into an exhibition and can just walk in for free. I think that has been successful.