Ma Yansong is a famous Chinese architect. At least, that’s what a large part of the architectural media wants us to believe. Part of that fame is due to his design for the 2006 Absolute Towers project, a residential complex in Toronto nicknamed Marilyn Monroe. Being the first Chinese architect to win an architecture competition outside China, Ma Yansong capitalized on this novelty personally and through MAD, the office he runs with partners Yosuke Hayano and Qun Dang. Ma poses in ads for Fotile, a Chinese kitchen appliance manufacturer, and car company Lexus uses his unrealized projects as the background for the promotion of its newest SUV. Recently, Actar published a 500-page book on his work, adding to Ma Yansong’s fame.
In fact, so far MAD had only realized one building: the Hongluo Club house in Beijing’s Miyun-district. But the office is about to complete their second project: the Mongolian Private Meadow Club. For a 500,000-m2 site surrounded by extensive grassland in the Ulanbutong district of Inner Mongolia, 400 km north of Beijing, MAD designed eight holiday houses, the first of which has just been finished. With the other houses still under construction, it is unclear when the project will be inhabited. Ma Yansong is eager to talk about it, but boasts that ‘it isn’t an important step in either mine or MAD’s career’. ‘The project doesn’t bring us any new opportunities. Being architects, we just feel responsible to give an answer to the brief.’ For a project with such low expectations, it’s turning out surprisingly well.
Two years ago the client, an economist, contacted MAD. He had acquired a large plot of land in the desert and made it fertile again. The next step was to develop it and sell it as holiday and weekend houses. ‘The client came to us,’ Ma Yansong recalls, ‘and asked us to find the interesting places on the plot to build the houses. We made a master plan and chose to build on eight totally different topographies: on top of a hill, in a valley, in a cave. All houses feature different relationships to their surroundings.’
The second site visit had a different purpose. The architects went back to the selected locations and started designing on the spot. ‘It felt different,’ says Ma Yansong. ‘On the first trip, I picked the top of a hill, but during the second trip I changed my mind and wondered if the valley might be a better location. I stood in the valley for two hours and felt it was the right place. You have to walk on the site in order to understand to which views you want to open up the house.’ The result is eight houses with a clear MAD-signature. All feature futuristic aesthetics that can be either blob or spiky, elevated or dug-in. The white façades, featuring large windows, will most likely blend in nicely with the snow during winter time.
The abstract, white architecture is dependent on a meticulous execution, and precisely this seems to pose a problem in this project. Ma Yansong: ‘When you build, especially in China, the good workers all go to the big construction sites. So when some farmers help you to build a small project like this, you have to communicate with them and put a lot of time and energy into designing details. We designed this curtain wall facing south. It has a dark colour so it can absorb some heat. We did all the detail drawings, but the local workers decided to build it in another material that was more easily available. So when it was finished, we went there and we talked to the client. He fired the team and replaced the whole wall.’
Each house is in between 550 and 800 m2. Targeted for temporary use as holiday houses, the prime concern for each of them is to open as many views to the surrounding area as possible. From that notion two types of objects derived, the singular and the fragmented. For the singular one the core is the corridor (straight, looped or circular) around which all spaces are positioned. The fragmented type has a core (the living room) from which a variety of corridors lead to different sections of the house. ‘The client told me that these were the houses as he imagined them to be,’ says Ma Yansong. ‘But I don’t think he imagined anything at all. It was more a relief for him to see we didn’t make all the houses exactly the same.’
From its foundation in 2004, MAD has been using architecture largely as a communication tool, to get in touch with politicians, the public and the media. That’s MAD’s way to claim a position in China and the world. Ma Yansong seems to be aware of that, when he says that ‘it is very easy to be special’. However, being special in this case is not at the expense of everything. ‘I am happy we designed different houses,’ says Ma Yansong. ‘If you think about it, with the design fee per square meter we could better have put the same house everywhere. Now that they’re all different, it doesn’t matter if some turn out better than others. At least we tried to respect the various places. That’s a good start. It shows we rate nature higher than some formal aesthetics.’
Other publications in MARK Magazine;
A Letter from Beijing | Published in MARK Magazine #09 (July-August, 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | Published in MARK Magazine #12 (Feb-March, 08)
Olympic Architecture | Published in MARK Magazine #14 (June-July, 08)
ORDOS100 – Babel for Billionaires | Published in MARK Magazine #15 (August-September, 08)
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