Ma Yansong on global architecture and MAD’s year ahead

We talk to MAD’s Ma Yansong about his thriving studio, global architecture and the year ahead

Ma Yansong and MAD's design for Jiaxing Trainstation
Jiaxing train station
(Image credit: CreatAR, courtesy of MAD)

When I speak to Ma Yansong – the architect behind George Lucas' upcoming Museum of Narrative Art in LA – it is the eve of Lunar New Year, and he's in a reflective mood. 

'Am I looking forward to the year ahead?' he says, speaking from his home in Beijing. 'Well, it certainly can't be worse than 2022!' For an architect whose practice has become increasingly international in scope, the restrictions and isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic have hit hard. 'Last year, particularly in China, people were quite depressed,' he says. 'Now though, it seems the pandemic is ending – I'm excited about returning to international travel and seeing projects started before the pandemic making good progress again. I think 2023 will be a really good year.'

Portrait of architect Ma Yansong shot next to an architecture model

The architect Ma Yansong

(Image credit: Greg Mei)

Ma Yansong: what's coming up for MAD in 2023

Projects now entering the later stages of construction include the Fenix Museum in Rotterdam and Ma's first Italian project – the revamp of a 1970s residential complex in Via Boncompagni, Rome, which has been in the works for more than a decade. 

2023 is also set to see the completion of several major projects, including a 'sunken railway station in the forest' in Jiaxing, China; the 'floating,' cloud-inspired Aranya 'Cloud Center' arts complex in Qinhuangdao, China; Xinhee Design Center – an 'office tower dancing in the breeze' for China's largest fashion company; and One River North, a Denver residential tower with a carved-out core designed to resemble Colorado's canyons. 

MAD_'s Aranya Cloud Center Rendering with Water View

Visualisation of the Aranya Cloud Center

(Image credit: MAD)

MAD’s growing portfolio

Ma's practice MAD has made its name with a series of boundary-pushing, nature-inspired buildings, which include the otherworldly Harbin Opera House in Harbin, China; volcano-inspired Quzhou Stadium, opened last year in Quzhou, China; and the Absolute Towers residential complex in Mississauga, Canada – affectionately nicknamed the Marilyn Monroe Towers for its hourglass curves.

Absolute Towers daytime view

Absolute Towers

(Image credit: Iwan Baan)

'Good buildings should feed people's imagination, provide them with pleasure and provoke some sort of spiritual reaction,' says Ma. 'I like to create a kind of surreal atmosphere with architecture that's a little strange, unfamiliar or abstract. If the built world is too practical, it feels flat, and there's no space for imagination.'

MAD's Quzhou Stadium

Quzhou Stadium

(Image credit: Aogvision, courtesy MAD Architects)

Born in 1975, Ma dreamed of making science fiction movies, but after his application to film school was rejected, he switched his focus to architecture, studying at the Beijing Institute of Civil Engineering and Architecture and Yale University, before starting his career working for the late, great Zaha Hadid. 

'Zaha taught me that being an architect is being an artist, and that as an artist, you don't want to repeat yourself,' he says. 'You must challenge yourself and push the boundaries of what can be done.'

MAD's Harbin Opera House exterior

Harbin Opera House exterior

(Image credit: Adam Mork)

Ma took this advice to heart, and while his bold designs have won him international acclaim, they have also, at times, attracted controversy. In 2016, George Lucas had to abandon plans to build his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on Chicago's lakefront when local groups objected to MAD's design. 

'It was frustrating,' says Ma. 'We spent two years designing that museum for Chicago. Any new architecture will cause controversy or discussion – that's normal, but surely those discussions should lead to a better result, not to making something disappear.'

MAD's Harbin Opera House interior

Harbin Opera House interior

(Image credit: Adam Mork)

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is now under construction in LA's Exposition Park, with a new design by MAD. The curving 300,000 sq ft building features a green roof and shaded public spaces underneath the museum, and is surrounded by 11 acres of new parkland. It is due to open in 2025.

'We hope the building will inspire curiosity – I think that's important for a cultural building aimed at young people,' says Ma. 'The museum is all about storytelling, so visitors should find the building inspiring and intriguing – the form should make them ready for the stories inside.'

MAD's Xiamen Xinhee Headquarters

Xinhee headquarters in Xiamen

(Image credit: CreatAR)