Ma’s international reputation earned him many offers for projects at home. However, his shan-shui city philosophy often ran against conservative views in China. Critics said his work was detached from its surroundings, calling it “too avant-garde” and “too Western.”
A stark example is the black glass twin towers of Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing. Completed in 2017 after six years of construction, the complex looms over nearby residential areas and has been largely panned for not fitting in with the cityscape.
Located on the southwestern edge of Chaoyang Park, the largest park in the city’s central business district, the complex comprises of 10 jet-black buildings chock-full of curvy surfaces and sharp circular spires amid quite hard landscaping.
Against the lake and forests of the park, the buildings are supposed to recall the mountains and rocks of classical Chinese inkwash paintings. But the complex has been derided for not conforming to the white, box-like commercial high-rises and residential buildings in the area. Netizens dubbed it “Batman’s lair” and the “Death Star” for its ominous look. Amid the controversy, architectural historian Wang Mingxian collaged a photo of Chaoyang Park Plaza into a classical landscape painting, showing how the buildings blend with the natural scenery.
“If they think this complex is at odds with its surroundings, that’s not my fault. The fault lies in the surrounding environment itself. It is the ubiquitous lifeless matchboxlike buildings that have turned our cities into an emotionless and insensitive space severed from humanity and the city’s own culture and history,” Ma said.
But the architect said this was not an act of defiance. “It’s constructive criticism,” he told NewsChina.
In MAD’s 16 years, it has expanded from a few members to a team of over 150 designers from all over the world. But the firm does not have a marketing department, which means that anyone seeking to collaborate with Ma needs to fully accept his design ideas.
In 2014, MAD won the international design competition for Lucas Museum of Narrative Art commissioned by Star Wars creator George Lucas. This time, Ma defeated his master Zaha Hadid.
Under construction in Exposition Park, Los Angeles, the museum will house the filmmaker’s private collection of paintings, illustrations, photography, digital art and movie memorabilia. Its futuristic exterior resembles a flying saucer hovering over the landscape. The ground floor and roof are designed as green spaces for visitors to relax.
“I once asked Mr Lucas why he chose MAD, and he said ‘Because other architects thought too much about how to display Star Wars imagery,’” Ma told NewsChina.
“So the thing is that, when given a chance, architects should first and foremost consider how to express their own independent values and attitudes,” he added.
Every two or three years, Ma makes an architectural pilgrimage to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, the masterwork of his favorite architect, Louis Kahn, the American master builder and one of most prominent modernist architects of the 20th century.
Completed in 1965, Kahn’s work combines functionality with striking aesthetics. The laboratories of the Salk Institute were designed as a pair of symmetrical towers mirroring each other across a paved open plaza. Down its center, a westward path seems to vanish into the Pacific.
Ma is impressed by how this work evokes feelings and emotions. More than once, he found visitors standing there meditating or moved to tears.
“Standing in that space, time and reality seems to disappear and people hear their inner voices clearly,” Ma said.
“I hope one day I can also design such a powerful and timeless building that not only strikes a chord with my contemporaries but also with future generations. I hope that a century on, people will still feel touched by the emotions preserved in my architecture,” he added.