Ma Yansong

This is an interesting, if somewhat older, discussion of the Chinese architect Ma Yansong and his so-called “organic architecture.” The piece focuses on his so-called “Marilyn Monroe” building in Mississagua, Ontario.

Reading about this drove home a few points about architecture to this somewhat educated person (though by no means any kind of expert) on the subject.

First, buildings like this are a nice counterweight to the boring box apartment tower that dominates in the early 21st century. This is as true in China as in soulless North American developments.

Second, I am skeptical of grand architectural theory, even when articulated by someone as seemingly innocuous as Ma. I neglected to comment on Oscar Niemeyer’s passing last week, but his design of Brasilia is contemptible as a place for human beings. Nothing reeks of the worst of high modernism as the complete disinterest by architects in the needs of people in their buildings. The too-common phenomenon of people-free architectural models in the pre-building process is a sign of how pervasive this is within architecture. Probably the most architecturally important building with which I have an intimate familiarity is the Rem Koolhaas designed Seattle Public Library. It’s pretty cool in many ways. It does a lot of things well. It also shows some shocking disregard for how people use space, ranging from an odd lack of bathrooms to the fact that following the stacks to the end puts you in the middle of nowhere, so much so that staff have taped signs to walls leading you to the exit from that point. So grand architectural ideas make me, well, worried.

Seattle Public Library

Third, even the best of this kind of architectural thought shows major problems within the planning of human settlements. Ma I think rightfully centers ideas of nature in his buildings. But you know what would be better than buildings that simulate nature? Nature. Take this:

The human relationship to nature is one of Ma’s fixations; lately, he has been particularly interested in traditional Chinese gardens, which harness nature to spiritual ends. “You can imagine one person sitting in a pavilion looking out to the pond and listening to music,” he says. “Real nature and artificial nature all mix together to create this scene. Those trees, rocks and pavilions are what you see, but what you feel is what’s special.”

These days, of course, traditional gardens are overrun by tourists, so Ma wants to incorporate that feeling of spiritual connection to nature into modern buildings. He has already done this in Fake Hills, a vast seaside residential complex in Beihai, Guangxi. Originally, the developer wanted a box-standard collection of towers, but Ma realized this would prevent many apartments from having a sea view, so he transformed the entire project into an long, thin mountain range, whose peaks and valleys create space for large garden terraces and whose shape allows each apartment to face the ocean.

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