An interview with Qingyun Ma of MADA s.p.a.m.

Qingyun Ma (1965 Xian) spearheads the so-called avant-garde Chinese architects who returned to their homeland from abroad and established a practice there. He studied architecture at the Tsinghua University in Beijing, and received his masters’ degree at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1990 he worked as a designer in KPF in the United States until 1994. In 1995 he established MADA in New York, and in 1999 he opened MADA s.p.a.m. in Shanghai. The addition of s.p.a.m. illustrates Ma’s architectural ambition; his projects range over strategy, planning, architecture and media. The last five years Ma has built 1,240,000 m2: his accomplishments range from often large-scale urban projects (like the 145,000 m2 multifunctional center in Wuxi S.E.Z.), to projects initiated by Qingyun Ma himself, like his Father’s House in Lantian (385 m2). Both his emphasis on speed in design – asking for a conceptual approach – and his growing interest in a developer’s role for himself, make him a special character in China’s architecture scene. Therefore the interview explores Ma’s views on the possible role for an architect in present day China; the yin and yang of business and building.

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You graduated in 1988 and then went to the United States, could you explain why, and what was your experience?

Qingyun Ma: I went to the States after 1988, as at the time nothing was going on in China. There were only signals and slogans, but no real signs of change. Back then it was very fashionable to go abroad; I didn’t think a lot about it, I was just following the trend. I went to the US to get a higher degree, having been awarded a scholarship to study at Penn.

Looking back now, I believe this blind desire to leave China was a good move; firstly because it gave me the chance to see China from a distance; a kind of re-understanding. It would have been different if I had stayed in China then. And secondly it was good for me to leave China because it prepared me much more intensively – for my return. So when I decided to go back, the potential, the force that had been built up already became so strong that I was able to throw myself wholeheartedly into the China of the end of the 1990s.

Could you give me some insight into the type of commission MADA s.p.a.m. got when the office started at the end of the 1990s?

QM: We started with a big master plan for a university campus, featuring ten colleges that were all to be relocated on one strip of land in the middle of nowhere. We completed that job successfully. After that we did the library design for one college – a red box that has received considerable media interest. So our first project in China was the biggest so far: a surface area of more than 1 million square meters that needed to be planned, and the campus I designed was 180,000 square meters.

This project resulted in my office undergoing a reverse pattern of growth. We started off really big: there were forty people working in the office, plus all the outsourced work. So, in collaboration with the institute, we had about 80 people working on that project at one time. Not including all the official professional support. When I think about it, I realize how strange it is – the practice is now shrinking. But that shrinking process does mean you can find the right size, the right ‘fit’, as it were. Shrinking is controllable, unlike growth; growth is uncontrollable, it is a natural tendency, you can’t stop it. The process of shrinkage can be controlled, and we find the right size along the way.

What I find interesting in your work is that throughout the years it has evolved so as to find a deliberate qualitative balance between the number of people, the time spent on design and the final architectural outcome. It seems to me that you freed yourself from the market, the commission evolution. Could you tell me how this went?

QM: Totally. When doing a big project you have an economic scale that gives you a certain freedom, and that had enabled us to do a lot more non-architectural projects. Other firms can’t do this, because they can’t even survive on commissions.

We were lucky to have those projects, and we were able to do a lot of more, the creating of free surfaces for conceptual work all started simultaneously. For example, we published several books: How to develop Junuan Island, also How to develop the North Bund in Shanghai as well as How to revitalize Shiuan, the ancient capital. We initiated and organized all of it ourselves, with non-commissioned work. We presented it to the city and in that way received really strong support from them.

Commission-wise we always search for a balance. In yesterday’s lecture (April 4, 2006, Berlage Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands) I explained that we always have small projects going on. We always aim for a strongly-held conviction, even if our ideas fail to materialize. Sometimes we even stop working for a client if he does not appreciate our work and ideas.

As we are designing these big master plans and urban projects, I use them as a reality check in which I trace certain ideas from a small project which in turn get bigger and bigger and find their way into a city-scheme. I like this polarization. In the office I deliberately invest in it: the huge projects versus the tiny ones. I like to think how an idea on hyper-urbanity can meet a completely rural idea; how ancient, hyper-classical Chinese forms should be dealt with today. This is the approach the office has generated.

So how do we fund it? My office is in a way very business oriented, I will explain later what I mean with business. I don’t want to call it practice, because practice is not an appropriate word today: practice is established to prove certain truths. That is what practice is about, right? But nothing is absolutely true.

So you mean that practice is a forging of evidence?

QM: I just mean that practice is such an obsolete word. And secondly, when you refer to it you’re talking about certain perimeters, by code, by technology, by professional morality. There are lots of limitations that are associated with practice.

If you look back on the last ten years, the really inventive people are business people. They generate so much wealth, so much energy, so much potential. They look into new potentials for maximizing the hidden values of the world. So when you think business, you can cross ideas, cross branding, cross breeding, really connecting – things those in the ‘practice world’ hate to do, because they are not courageous enough. That leads to the question of how you finance it. By organizing your office as a business you really can finance it; you link it to the bank, to individual groups with reliable funds, to investors from everywhere in the world.

For me business is about the encounter between a good idea and money. As for the funding of it, it is not really difficult to find money these days because there’s a lot flying around. Some people don’t know how to spend it; the important thing is to connect your idea to that money.

Does this mean a redefinition of what an architect is? Are you trying to expand the notion or the potential of what an architect can be and do within the contemporary China situation?

QM: I plan to demonstrate this by stopping next year with my architectural practice and temporarily becoming a developer, exclusively. I want to see how architects can change roles. So I will sacrifice myself to make a point, again. I believe it has to do with the Chinese intellectual morality, you know. A developer really operates in a lovely world – thinking about what he does, having a goal, an idea and knowing how to fund it. Why can’t architects do that? In the end, architecture is not, for me, about buildings, it is actually about creating everything. That environment can be anything or everything: a talk even.

Property developers (ex-factory managers, but also go-getting thirty-year-olds) are relatively powerful and they marginalize architects, not least by demanding purely formulaic architecture from them. How do you mediate in the design process as an architect and as a designer between their aspirations and your personal ambitions?

QM: Aside from a traditional definition of design, for me it is important to explore a problem, even invent a problem. That is what design is really about; sometimes if you can’t find the true essence of the problem you may feel you’re approaching it wrongly. If you feel very uncomfortable, as a designer, you know that you should not force the solution. That means you haven’t yet identified the problem, so you start to invent problems, and sometimes a newly invented problem can override the one that so far hasn’t been identified.

The task of inventing and re-inventing a problem is really fundamental to a design process. When you re-invent the problem you need qualifications and elements, you need to open up to explore research; added to which you need to interact with the people involved, because sometimes the problem is really on their side. Sometimes you cannot find the right budget and you discover there is one man behind the scenes who was not satisfied with what he had seen. Exploring that problem gives you a better opportunity or openness to tackle the matter. That’s when design turns into a process of building or re-inventing a network of relations.

What I found interesting in your lecture, and I see this as an emerging evolution on the contemporary Chinese architectural scene that I am encountering, is the search for a balance – or is it a two line struggle? – between two poles, the rural and the urban. From a philosophical and cultural point of view but also from a very practical point of view, the countryside experience is very valuable for your work. In my mind it sounds like Mao, with today’s avant-garde characterized by a voluntary cultural revolution. In the same way as Mao forced intellectuals to go to the countryside to explore, to help out and years later allowed them to return to the city. You do this voluntarily – design with local knowledge and material and let people build their own things. And with the knowledge you have gained there, you go back to the city.

QM: I think this analysis is very true. During the past years I have been feeling tired, I was longing for something exciting for a very long time. As a result, in a mere three years, I started to lose freshness, the feeling of being alert about things. Going to the rural areas and working in totally different conditions has been a means to get rid of my blurredness – to be able to re-enter. Upon re-entering I found something that I hadn’t noticed before which was in the end so obvious. The whole rural-urban evolution is more about therapeutic, biological enhancement. And honestly, that’s the truth.

But this interaction with the city depends entirely on your personality. When you return to the city, the people around you find what you say so convincing. By moving to and fro, you cut from the city to the country, and in doing so, you basically cut across a big section of society. So your justification, your pronouncement, your propositions in a city setting seem far more reliable, far more substantial, far more targeted. I have found that during the three years I have been doing this, my job in Shanghai has become so much easier.

Another side of this is the theoretical one. The area in the middle is a big problem for China now. The city is the city and always will be, it will be bad and good, you can select it and judge it. The city has choices. As for the rural side: it is very poor, very burdened, but it is not miserable. The peasants are happy; you go to the rural areas and they are not miserable, as we tend to think. They are great. But it is this middle zone that is a big question mark.

The middle zone has no choice; we are facing American suburban schemes, we are facing all kinds of hypothetical models, but I believe we fail to see this within the Chinese setting. Obviously we cannot have American suburbs, obviously we cannot afford more slums. What we are going to do about it? As I punched through this layer, I started to understand the third urbanism here. It is neither urban nor agrarian productivity, so what is it?

I think there should be another model that is totally detached from these two. I am actually working on it, backed up by a true theoretical framework apart from psychological enhancement. And then I have a private reason; the farms I go to are located in my family hometown so I am able to penetrate deep into the soil, which is a great privilege.

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Qingyun Ma interviewed by Bert de Muynck.
OMA office, Rotterdam The Netherlands | April 5, 2006
Published in VOLUME #8 – Ubiquitous China | September 2006

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