Founded by Chinese architect Ma Yansong in 2004, MAD Architects is a global architecture firm committed to developing futuristic, organic, technologically advanced designs that embody a contemporary interpretation of the Eastern affinity for nature. With its core design philosophy of Shanshui City – a vision for the city of the future based in the spiritual and emotional needs of residents – MAD endeavors to create a balance between humanity, the city, and the environment. Globally recognized as a creative pioneer, founding principal Ma Yansong is a central figure in the worldwide dialogue on the future of architecture. Ma was named one of the “10 Most Creative People in Architecture” by Fast Company in 2009. He received the prestigious “International Fellowship” from Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2011, and was selected as “Young Global Leader (YGL)” by World Economic Forum (Davos Forum) in 2014.
In 2014, MAD was selected as principal designer for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Chicago, USA, becoming the first China-based architecture firm to design an overseas cultural landmark. In 2006, MAD won the design competition for the Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Canada. The residential project is composed of 56-story and 50-story high-rises and was completed in 2012. The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) awarded the towers “Best Tall Building Americas” in 2012 and EMPORIS ranked them first in their 2013 “Skyscraper Awards.”
MAD has been commissioned by clients of various backgrounds for design in urban planning, urban complex, museum, theatre, social residence, old neighborhood renovation, and artworks. Current ongoing urban projects include Chaoyang Park Plaza, a mixed-use urban complex project located in the new CBD of Beijing; Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center, a city-scale urban development of approximate 600,000sqm floor area in total; Huangshan Mountain Village, a master planning plus architecture design project with 450,000sqm site area. MAD’s signature cultural projects include Harbin Opera House (completed in 2015), China Philharmonic Concert Hall (in design development stage), Ordos Museum (completed in 2011), and China Wood Sculpture Museum (completed in 2011).
MAD has on-going international projects located in Rome, Paris, Japan, and Beverly Hills. In the heart of Rome, MAD is designing a mixed-use courtyard building that reuses existing structure and will house apartments, office space, and a chapel with total usable area of approximately 23,000sqm. In Paris, MAD placed first in a competition of 96 teams to build a residential complex on the right bank of the River Seine. In Japan, MAD delivered an organic design for a local education center. The firm’s latest commission is a 13,000sqm mixed-use residential complex in the center of Beverly Hills.
MAD has been a pioneer in contemporary art and design. MAD has participated in significant exhibitions in the 10th, 11th and 12th Venice Architecture Biennales. MAD also participated exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Copenhagen), and MAXXI (Rome). An array of MAD’s architecture models have been acquired by the well-known M+ Museum (Hong Kong) as part of their permanent collections.
The firm’s design advances have been chronicled in a series of books: Mad Dinner, Bright City, Ma Yansong, and Shanshui City. MAD principals have been invited for speaking engagements at the American Institute of Architects, Architectural Association School of Architecture (London), World Economic Forum in Davos, Strelka Institute (Moscow), Harvard Graduate Schoold of Design(Boston) and the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture (London).
MAD Architects is led by Ma Yansong, Dang Qun and Yosuke Hayano. MAD has offices in Beijing, Los Angeles and New York.
Harbin Opera House
Embedded within Harbin’s wetlands, the Harbin Opera House was designed in response to the force and spirit of the northern city’s untamed wilderness and frigid climate. Appearing as if sculpted by wind and water, the building seamlessly blends in with nature and the topography – a transfusion of local identity, art, and culture. “We envision Harbin Opera House as a cultural center of the future – a tremendous performance venue, as well as a dramatic public space that embodies the integration of human, art and the city identity, while synergistically blending with the surrounding nature,” said Ma Yansong, founding principal, MAD Architects.
On the exterior, the architecture references the sinuous landscape of the surrounding area. The resulting curvilinear façade composed of smooth white aluminum panels becomes the poetry of edge and surface, softness and sharpness. The journey begins upon crossing the bridge onto Harbin Cultural Island, where the undulating architectural mass wraps a large public plaza, and during winter months, melts into the snowy winter environment.
The architectural procession choreographs a conceptual narrative, one that transforms visitors into performers. Upon entering the grand lobby, visitors will see large transparent glass walls spanning the grand lobby, visually connecting the curvilinear interior with the swooping façade and exterior plaza. Soaring above, a crystalline glass curtain wall soars over the grand lobby space with the support of a lightweight diagrid structure. Comprised of glass pyramids, the surface alternates between smooth and faceted, referencing the billowing snow and ice of the frigid climate. Visitors are greeted with the simple opulence of natural light and material sensation – all before taking their seat.
Presenting a warm and inviting element, the grand theater is clad in rich wood, emulating a wooden block that has been gently eroded away. Sculpted from Manchurian Ash, the wooden walls gently wrap around the main stage and theater seating. From the proscenium to the mezzanine balcony the grand theater’s use of simple materials and spatial configuration provides world-class acoustics. The grand theater is illuminated in part by a subtle skylight that connects the audience to the exterior and the passing of time.
Within the second, smaller theater, the interior is connected seamlessly to the exterior by the large, panoramic window behind the performance stage. This wall of sound-proof glass provides a naturally scenic backdrop for performances and activates the stage as an extension of the outdoor environment, inspiring production opportunities.
Harbin Opera House emphasizes public interaction and participation with the building. Both ticketholders and the general public alike can explore the façade’s carved paths and ascend the building as if traversing local topography. At the apex, visitors discover an open, exterior performance space that serves as an observation platform for visitors to survey the panoramic views of Harbin’s metropolitan skyline and the surrounding wetlands below. Upon descent, visitors return to the expansive public plaza, and are invited to explore the grand lobby space.
Surpassing the complex opera house typology, MAD articulates an architecture inspired by nature and saturated in local identity, culture and art. As the Harbin Opera House deepens the emotional connection of the public with the environment, the architecture is consequently theatrical in both its performance of narrative spaces and its context within the landscape.
Chaoyang Park Plaza
MAD Architects, led by Ma Yansong, has completed “Chaoyang Park Plaza“, which includes the Armani apartment complex. Positioned on the southern edge of Beijing’s Chaoyang Park – the largest remaining park in Beijing’s central business district area – the 220,000 sqm complex includes 10 buildings which unfold as a classic Shanshui painting on an urban scale. Having a similar position and function as Central Park in Manhattan, but unlike the modern box-like buildings that only create a separation between the park and the city, “Chaoyang Park Plaza” instead is an expansion of nature. It is an extension of the park into the city, naturalizing the CBD’s strong artificial skyline, borrowing scenery from a distant landscape – a classical approach to Chinese garden architecture, where nature and architecture blend into one another.
“In modern cities, architecture as an artificial creation is seen more as a symbol of capital, power or technological development; while nature exists independently. It is different from traditional Eastern cities where architecture and nature are designed as a whole, creating an atmosphere that serves to fulfill one’s spiritual pursuits,” said architect Ma Yansong. “We want to blur the boundary between nature and the artificial, and make it so that both are designed with the other in mind. Then, the argument in the modern logic of humans to protect or to destroy nature will no longer exist if we understand and see humans and nature as co-existing. Human behavior and emotion is part of nature, and nature is where that originates and ends.”
Inspired by traditional Chinese landscape paintings, the design remodels the relationship of large-scale architecture within our urban centers. It introduces natural forms and spaces – “mountain, brook, creek, rocks, valley and forest” – into the city. The asymmetrical twin tower office buildings on the north side of the site, sit at the base of the park’s lake and are like two mountain peaks growing out of the water. The transparent and bright atrium acts like a “drawstring” that pulls the two towers together by a connecting glass rooftop structure.
The small-scale, low-rise commercial buildings appear as mountain rocks that have endured long-term erosion. They seem to be randomly placed, but their strategic relationship to one another forms a secluded, but open urban garden, offering a place where people can meet within nature in the middle of the city. The two multi-story Armani apartments to the southwest continue this concept of “open air living” with their staggered balconies, offering each residential unit more opportunities to be exposed to natural sunlight, and ultimately feel a particular closeness to nature.
The overall environment is shaped by smooth, curved surfaces of black and white, creating a quiet and mysterious atmosphere. It is one that evokes the emotion and aesthetic resonance of a traditional Chinese ink painting, creating a tranquil escape from the surrounding, bustling urban environment. The landscape that weaves itself in between the buildings incorporates pine trees, bamboo, rocks and ponds – all traditional eastern landscape elements that imply a deeper connection between the architecture and classical space. Japanese graphic artist Kenya Hara led the design of the “simple” and “refined” signage system for the project.
The project has been awarded the LEED Gold Certification by the US Green Building Council, as the ideal of “nature” is not only embodied in the design concept, but in the innovation and integration of green technology as well. The vertical fins seen on the exterior glass façade emphasize the smoothness and verticality of the towers. They also function as the energy efficient ventilation and filtration system, drawing fresh air indoors. At the base of the towers, there is a pond, that while making them appear as if they are going into infinity, works as an air cooling system in the summer, decreasing the overall temperature of the interior.
“Chaoyang Park Plaza” completely transforms the model of building found in our cities’ central business districts. But even though it is located in the center of Beijing’s CBD, the intention is for it to have a dialogue with the traditional and classical city of Beijing – reflecting the interdependence between man and nature, both in urban planning, and the large-scale presentation of the Shanshui garden. In the painting of Wang Mingxian, an architectural historian, he juxtaposed “Chaoyang Park Plaz” into a classical landscape painting. The architecture and the natural scenery seemed harmonious together, unlike how some might think the buildings do not fit into their urban context. Commenting on this contrast, Ma Yansong said: “I don’t think that’s our problem. The real question is when did the original cultural context of this city disappear? We have the opportunity to try and create a different kind of city, that on a spiritual and cultural level, can be compared to the classical cities of Eastern philosophy and wisdom.”
MAD architects have completed their first project in Japan, the Clover House kindergarten. Located in the small town of Okazaki, the school‘s setting boasts views of the paddy fields and mountains, characteristic of the Aichi Prefecture. The kindergarten was originally operated out of the old family home of siblings Kentaro and Tamaki Nara, which soon became too small and unfit for expanding their educational goals. The siblings desired to create a modern educational institution where children could feel as comfortable as they do in their own homes, allowing them to grow and learn in a nurturing setting.
“It was important to create a kindergarten that felt like a home, and give the kids the best possible house to grow up in, one that promotes their learning and creativity,” stated Ma Yansong, founder and principal partner of MAD Architects.
MAD was commissioned by the family to transform their old two-story family house into a fully developed educational institution. The transformation started with an investigation of the existing 105 sqm house. Like the surrounding houses, this wooden building was first constructed as a standard prefabricated house. To keep the construction costs to a minimum, MAD decided to recycle the existing wood structure, incorporating it into the new building’s design. The original wooden structure is present throughout the main learning area as a symbolic memory of Clover House’s history. Its translucent and enclosed spaces easily adapt to different teaching activities. The windows, shaped in various geometries recognizable to a child’s eye, allow sunlight to sift through and create ever-changing shadows that play with the students’ curiosity and encourage imagination.
“We have designed the building from a child’s point of view, and the layout focusses on creating intimate and diverse spaces.” said Ma Yansong.
The new house’s skin and structure wrap the old wooden structure like a piece of cloth covering the building’s skeleton, creating a blurry space between the new and the old. The starting point of The Clover House is the signature pitched roof. This repurposed element creates dynamic interior spaces, and recalls the owners’ memories of the building as their home. The form of the house brings to mind a magical cave or a pop-up fort. Compared to the original assembly-line residence, the new three-dimensional wooden structure presents a much more organic and dynamic form to host the kindergarten. The facade and roof utilize common soft roofing materials, such as asphalt shingles, to provide waterproofing, while wrapping up the whole structure in a sheath of paper-like pieces.
“We wanted to create a playful piece of architecture that would stay in the memory of the kinds when they have grown up.” – Ma Yansong.
Adding to the sense of playfulness, there is a slide that descends from the second floor of the building to an outdoor play area and an open courtyard in front of the building.