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Landscapes in Motion: Ma Yansong Presents Buildings As Organic & Vivid Art Form in Hong Kong Retrospective

PEOPLE


The Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI) Gallery puts up an exhibit spanning MAD Architects’ work across two decades, probing audiences to reflect on their inner selves by observing the fluid landscapes they inhabit.


By Mrin B

22 April 2024


Ma Yansong: Landscapes in Motion presented architectural and research projects carried out over the course of two decades by MAD Architects | Image Courtesy of HKDI Gallery

Spanning architectural and research projects carried out over the course of two decades, the recently displayed solo exhibition Ma Yansong: Landscapes in Motion marks a pivotal moment in the journey of MAD Architects — and its principal partner Ma Yansong — as the leading Chinese architectural firm celebrates its 20th anniversary. A journey that began in 2004 with MAD winning the international competition for the Absolute Towers, a complex of twin 50-storey-plus apartment buildings in Mississauga, Canada, the first time a Chinese firm had won a commission of such a scale and significance abroad. 


“That was a strange thing,” Ma says. “It was an open competition, I was a young designer and I started with this criticism of the city in general. I didn’t want to design a boxy, strong tower. I wanted to make it more natural. I didn’t expect it to get built.” When the skyscrapers topped out in 2012, they caused a media frenzy — local media quickly dubbed them the “Marilyn Monroe” towers — catapulting a relatively young Ma to the league of international “starchitects.” 


MAD won the international design competition for the Absolute Towers in Canada in 2004 | Image Courtesy of HKDI Gallery


Since then, MAD has designed everything from museums and concert halls to housing and municipal buildings as well as large-scale urban complexes across the globe, most of which were the subject of the exhibition at the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI) Gallery that ran January 19 through April 7, 2024. Adapted from a display late last year at the Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning, and exclusively curated for the HKDI Gallery by its founder and Ma himself, the exhibition, through a series of large-scale models of major projects, presented MAD’s exploration of the future of cities, envisioning a harmonious coexistence of urban landscapes, historical sites, and natural environments.


“I believe all human-made objects, from tools to art, are externalizations of the human spirit,” says Ma. “[which] the exhibition brings to the fore [through] impressive and dynamic installations that reflect attitudes towards the external world, both its past and future. This exhibition is an essential viewing that unfolds the human aspect of pioneering scientific architectural technologies.”


Exclusively curated by Ma Yansong, the exhibition explored the future of cities through large-scale models of major MAD projects | Image Courtesy of HKDI Gallery


MAD’s projects are often free-flowing sculptural forms that merge into their contexts, created through an intuitive expression of emotion. Ma has previously spoken about Beijing’s open landscapes — the lakes and mountains co-existing with traditional dwellings of the region — as his primary architectural influences. He believes that architecture that embodies a bridge between the natural and man-made, a distinctly Chinese sense of dialogue with the natural surroundings, will be able to uphold the cultural fabric and history of the site.


MAD’s design for the Quzhou Sports Park creates an undulating landscape of volcanoes mirrored by a lake | Image Courtesy of HKDI Gallery


This is often expressed in the biomorphic structures the practice is known for such as the Shenzhen Bay Culture Park, which places a series of “monumental stones” in white granite amidst a vast public green space, the Quzhou Sports Park, which creates an undulating Earth-meets-Mars landscape of volcanoes mirrored by a lake, and the Harbin Opera House, the curvaceous forms of which are inspired by the wetlands that surround the city.


MAD’s design for the Shenzhen Bay Culture Park places “monumental stones” in white granite amidst a vast public green space | Image Courtesy of HKDI Gallery


Apart from such urban-scale projects, adaptive reuse and renovation projects were also on display, which included MAD’s renovation of the FENIX Museum of Migration in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. The design, meant to connect the city’s history with its present, opens out the central facade and roof of an existing warehouse. Two staircases that call back to the most natural form — the spiral — are inserted within the space, underscoring Ma’s love for nature-inspired structures.


The natural form of the spiral assumes architectural proportions at the FENIX Museum of Migration in Rotterdam | Image courtesy of HKDI Gallery


The exhibition also included an interactive neon-art installation, which traced Ma’s original hand-drawn design concept sketches of the projects showcased in the exhibition. Bridging the past and future, the installation was a reference to Hong Kong’s neon heritage while representing an unconventional way of thinking about architecture, one that sees buildings as organic, vivid works of art.


A neon-art installation traced Ma’s original hand-drawn design concept sketches of the projects showcased | Image courtesy of HKDI Gallery


“Architecture and cities are not abstract scientific technologies but real settings where life unfolds,”  says Ma about the primary guiding tenet for the exhibition. “They carry traits of living beings; thus, they are full of energy, flow, dynamism, and uncertainty. Architecture is alive, growing with the earth, endowed with life, rich in emotions, perceptive of time, and compassionate to everything.”


The design for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles includes one of MAD’s signature elements: the walkable roof | Image courtesy of HKDI Gallery


For Ma, architecture is not just about building; it must help people reconnect with their surroundings, allow the freedom to explore and to liberate oneself. The organic, free-flowing forms of his buildings, which look like natural landscapes in motion, are a testament to this process of thinking. And through this retrospective, Ma seems to be probing audiences to reflect on their inner selves by observing the fluid landscapes they inhabit — to reimagine how contemporary society may be structured through a confluence of art, architecture, and nature.

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