Designed to delight

15:59, January 21, 2010      

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Ma Yansong's latest project Urban Forest coming up in the heart of Chongqing was inspired by a Chinese landscape painting. Photos courtesy of Ma Yansong

Nation's leading innovative architect says there is more to his wacky buildings than meets the eye.

Feng Juan saw the construction workers outside No 32 Beibingmasi hutong, while riding her bike to her narrow courtyard home, last summer.

Top: Ma's bubble in No 32 Beibingmasi Hutong is a futuristic washroom. Above: Inside the bubble.

Not another house in this already crowded lane, she thought with dismay.

Months later, she was stunned to see a large, silver, bubble, sticking out of the mass of tiled-roofed houses.

It was only then that Feng cracked the mystery of that strange structure, a work by MAD architecture firm's leading architect, Ma Yansong, China's leading innovative architect.

Entering the bubble that looked like a transparent studio, Feng found a washroom and toilets with yellow-and-black fittings set against the pure white interior, a spindly handrail, an oval window and rounded steps that led to a broad rooftop terrace.

"It looks like a drop of liquid mercury and when night falls, the bubble glows in the dark," she says.

"It is the perfect answer to a hutong dweller's prayers for an escape from the odors of a public toilet."

But the cost is formidable - 400,000 yuan ($58,560).

But for architect Ma, the bubble is not just about its practical value. Its fun, mirrored surface holds deeper secrets.

The highly polished facade distorts the images of trees, buildings and people. The images meld into one another, creating an ever-changing, semi-psychedelic frame that stands in marked contrast to the staid courtyard.

"These deformed images reflect the fact that China's rapid development has altered the city's landscape on a massive scale, continually eroding the delicate urban cover of old Beijing," Ma says.

"Throughout Western urbanization, skyscrapers were the symbol of technological competence, but it shouldn't be the same for Beijing; this city should have a more Oriental personality."

The nation's dramatic development has forced an ageing architecture to rely on chaotic, spontaneous renovations to survive an ever-changing neighborhood.

The city's urban landscape calls urgently for a change in the living conditions of the residents.

"But that 'change' doesn't mean knocking down an old building and replacing it with a fake old structure with a traditional style, like the Dashilan snack street in central Beijing. The old community spirit is lost that way," the 35-year-old says.

Shifting his gaze from skyscrapers, the architect focuses on the everyday lives of the city's residents.

The futuristic bubble not only provides residents with the necessary facilities, but also links the booming city with each individual's vision of a better Beijing.

"I want to see how our designs relate to contemporary and traditional China, and more importantly, how to involve common people in the design," he says.

In keeping with this philosophy, designers from his studio talk to people from all walks of life, like taxi drivers, about architecture and compare their views with those expressed by Beijing's planners.

"Beijing taxi drivers are very talkative and are always ready to hold forth on a range of issues, be it traffic, pollution, social security, or architecture. They did not think favorably, for example, about the design of the CCTV headquarters. But officials tend to like such unique structures," says Ma, who sometimes builds his vision of the future from such conversations.

The architect says simple does not mean lacking in imagination or having an unromantic appearance.

"Take the History and Science Museum of Erdos (shaped like a nucleus wrapped in reflective metal louvers, located in the midst of the Gobi desert of Inner Mongolia) as an example. It looks like an abstract and complex design, but when in the building, people sense freedom and inspiration; that is the simplicity I want to achieve," Ma explains.

His latest project, Urban Forest, is a 385-m high metropolitan cultural complex in the heart of Chongqing, and fuses the Eastern spirit of humanism with urban public spaces.
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