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it is a mistake to reject tradition"

Together with India, China is considered to be the great economic world


power of the future. In fact, it has become a creative paradise for some
of the most prestigious architects in the world. How does the western
style influence a society marked by tradition? Qingyun Ma reflects on the
future of architecture in his country.

By Ethel Baraona Pohl/Caja Negra


Photos Thomas Wagner/Quing Yun Ma

All roads lead to Beijing. Or to Shanghai. This is what we can seemingly deduce from
conversations with architects from different countries. Everyone is working in China
or trying to get a project to develop in the country. Large firms, young architects,
Americans, Europeans, Japanese. They all have a Chinese stamp on their passports. The
new economic boom is closely connected with the strong architectural development
of the last few years, with very attractive proposals such as Dongtan, the first
environmentally sustainable city in the world, designed by Arup on an island off the
coast of Shanghai. Aware of this phenomenon, and as a foretaste of the great exhibition
on Chinese architecture planned for 2008, the Mies van der Rohe Foundation of
Barcelona organised a series of conferences entitled China: New Architecture, in which
figures of such prestige as Pei Zhu and Qingyun Ma participated; architects who studied
in the United States and have undertaken a number of major projects, both in their
country and abroad. Both are exponents of a new style of architecture which combines
traditional and modern aspects, based on elements of Chinese culture reinvented with
new materials and using new shapes and textures.
BACKGROUND
Qingyun Ma turns out to be
perfectly able to analyse the future of
architecture in China and the weight of
western influences. Ma is the founder of
the MADA s.p.a.m. studio (strategy,
planning, architecture, media), with
headquarters in New York, Shanghai and
Beijing. After studying at Tsinghua
University, he was the first university
student of his country to be given a grant
to study at the University of Pennsylvania
since 1937. In China, where he has been
given several awards, there are projects
such as the campus and library of
Zheijiang University, in Ningbo; the Red
Star building, a former asylum
reconverted and lined with bamboo,
where the MADA studio in Shanghai is
based; and he has taken part in the Well
Hall project, a building in the outskirts of
Xian constructed by the villagers without
the use of a single plan.
I like to say that China is now
like a “miraculous butterfly”,
and with the movement of
its wings great things are
created.”

Ethel Barahona: The great economic and


social transformation that the country
is undergoing is seen as an
unprecedented urban explosion,
articulated by major public constructions
such as dams and bridges, aerial roads
and underwater tunnels. It seems that
these constructions have had a
devastating impact on China’s historic
and natural heritage. And this looks as if
it is only the beginning. How do you see
this growth?

Qingyun Ma: Well, first of all, I would like


to point out that I feel I have benefited
from this situation of great evolution. We
know that architecture has developed
enormously in the last five or ten years,
which has influenced architects like me a
lot, who have studied in China as well as
abroad, and thanks to this we can work in
different languages and see this boom as
a great opportunity to shape and mould
our acquired knowledge. But in China
there are thousands of architects and now
is the right time to develop big projects
that can be recognised internationally.
This opportunity must also be understood
as a great responsibility, as we must treat
our country’s historic heritage with
extreme caution. I like to say that China
is now like a “miraculous butterfly”, and
with the movement of its wings great
things are created.
E: There are also a large number of foreign E: You are one of the leaders of this new
architects currently working in China, generation of young Chinese architects
figures of the category of Zaha Hadid, David who, despite studying abroad, ended up
Chipperfield, Norman Foster or Rem working at home. How do you believe that
Koolhaas. Do you think that they are western architecture has influenced your
reinventing China in some way, work in a country as traditional as China?
architecturally-speaking?
Q: This is also an important subject. When I
Q: In China today there is now a great was at university in China, my position was
freedom for people of different cultural totally opposed to traditionalism. Moreover,
backgrounds to live together, to create in we were living in the 1980s, at a time when
their works, almost like a fingerprint of each China was asleep and terrible events
and every one of them. I mean a print in the happened such as the massacre of
economic capitalism, defined by the Tiananmen Square. The young people were
freedom to take individual decisions and angry about everything, as we could see no
regenerated by global movements. If we are way out for our country. This situation made
not capable of understanding this me decide to study abroad. After some
movement, we will never be able to years, after having lived in the United States,
understand what is happening in China: we after having absorbed the western way of
must be capable of rediscovering, of setting life and gained confidence, I started to look
up new urban alternatives to be able to know back. At a time when my architectural style
where China is going, as a living, changing was totally westernised, I realised that the
country. Neither do I know for sure if these position of rejecting tradition and history
architects have found a great source of was wrong. Because of my cultural
inspiration in our thousands of years of background, it is very hard for me to define
history or if it is simply a question of a limits and to know if the China of today is
phenomenon in answer to globalisation in shaping me or if I am a part of those that
the world today. Without a doubt, it is not are shaping China. In any case, this mixture
an easy answer, as it also makes me consider is at the same time positive and negative:
the fact that there are many Chinese positive because thanks to this I feel
architects of great constructions who are completely integrated in this current
unknown in the western world or who simply development; negative because in a way it
do not fit in with the language of western hindered my training and my interest in
architecture. This brings us to two traditional and historic subject, which I can
hypothetical problems: discover if this now appreciate as being of great value.
language governed by western architects is
so strong that at some time will end up
dominating Chinese architecture, or if on
the other hand, Chinese architects are
unaware of their own value, of this language
that is different from the western one, and
do not know how to make themselves known
abroad. It is a really interesting question.
E: Some of MADA’s great projects are a
city museum, a cultural centre, the
campus and library of Zhejiang
University, all located in Ningbo (China);
or the BOYA Court and the H.I.P. in Beijing,
currently under construction. In them,
together with the diversity of languages,
we can see a clear emphasis on the use of
materials. What is the creative process
to achieve this dialogue between modern
and traditional materials?

Q: To begin with, I would like to point out


that when I use traditional materials, I am
in no way trying to be or appear to be
nostalgic, or become the “saviour of
traditions”. These are simply materials that
have always been there and in some way
are right for the purpose of each project.
All this knowledge that you acquire after
university allows you to visualise the
unique texture and light of each space and
look for the material that allows it to
develop. I am sure that I will continue to
work in this direction.

www.madaspam.com

All this knowledge that you


acquire after university
allows you to visualise the
unique texture and light of
each space and look for
the material that allows it
to develop”