Newspaper article International New York Times

The Architect Ma Yansong Blends East and West

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Architect Ma Yansong Blends East and West

Article excerpt

Ma Yansong, 40, has become one of China's best-known architects. He talks about how traditional Eastern values inform his perspective and what he thinks about China's ban on "weird" architecture.

Ma Yansong, 40, has become one of China's best-known architects. His curvilinear, free-form and futuristic designs are often compared to those of his mentor, Zaha Hadid, who died on March 31 at 65. Mr. Ma says his greatest inspiration is nature; his recently completed opera house in the northern Chinese city of Harbin resembles a snow- capped mountain, while his master plan for the city of Nanjing calls for sloping buildings covered with vertical louvers that look like waterfalls. While Mr. Ma's firm, MAD, continues to land splashy projects in China, he is also expanding in the United States. He will soon open MAD's second American office, after Los Angeles, in New York, and now has three stateside projects underway: a high- rise in Manhattan; an apartment and retail complex in Beverly Hills, Calif.; and George Lucas's provocative museum project in Chicago, a tent-like design that has gotten mixed reviews -- one local politician compared it to a "palace for Jabba the Hutt." In this edited interview, Mr. Ma talks about how he deals with such criticism, how traditional Eastern values inform his perspective and what he thinks about China's ban on "weird" architecture.

Q. You had a close relationship with Zaha Hadid. How did she influence your career?

A.She was my mentor when I went to graduate school at Yale. My English wasn't good then, so we didn't talk much. Sometimes we just looked at each other and she was able to tell me things almost just by looking. She advised my thesis project. That turned into this broad conversation about architecture that got into humanity and nature and art. She brought me art books and introduced me to people like Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson. Architecture really was art for her -- a tool to communicate with people on an emotional level. Either you love it or you hate it. I really believe in that.

Q. When did you realize you wanted to be an architect?

A.When I graduated from high school I thought I wanted to make science fiction movies, so I applied to film school but I couldn't get in. A professor told me I should try architecture instead. I found a book about famous architects, and I was fascinated because there were so many different architectural styles. They were all great, and they all co-existed in our world. There wasn't really a right or wrong.

Q. One of your most significant projects so far is the opera house in Harbin, which one critic said looked like "a snow dune, blending the artificial with the natural." How quickly did the design come to you?

A.The beauty of architecture is it involves work that stretches over a very long time but often starts in one instant, with just one emotion, a kind of instinctual response. …

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