Of mountains and water: Ma Yansong’s Shanshui City 26.09.17

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Mad Architects draws on traditional Chinese painting and sensitivity to landscape to realise two contrasting landmark projects

In 2015, at the age of 40, Ma Yansong, celebrated founder and figurehead of Beijing-based Mad Architects, published his manifesto. Titled Shanshui City, the book critiques the impact of modernity on Chinese cities at the beginning of the 21st century, and sketches a sensuous and seductive vision of a future in which cities are built not for ‘capital and power’, but for ‘people and nature’. The book presents Mad’s designs for buildings and urban complexes composed of fluid, evocative shapes, mostly through luscious models, artfully lit and beautifully photographed. Drawing aesthetic and philosophical inspiration from the tradition of ink-wash paintings known as ‘shanshui’ (translated literally as ‘mountains and water’), Ma’s goal is the revivification of the ‘soulless modern cities’ of contemporary China through a rediscovery of the traditional oriental sensitivity for nature and landscape, a sensibility that can ‘restore a sense of harmony and balance to our relationship with the natural world’.

There is a distinct resonance here with another urban manifesto from the Far East published nearly 60 years ago: Metabolism 1960: The Proposals for a New Urbanism. This also set out a vision for reshaping contemporary cities in accordance with oriental conceptions of nature, supplanting the static, machine-based notion of modern Western cities with a biologically-inspired urbanism that incorporated principles of growth and change into its built fabric. Japan’s metabolism movement was, it has been claimed, the first non-Western avant-garde, and propelled contemporary Japanese architecture to a position of global visibility and significance. Ma’s Shanshui City aims to do something similar for China in the 21st century, employing Chinese sources and phenomena.

In the current hothouse atmosphere of rampant Chinese urbanisation, the fastest and most extensive yet recorded in history, Mad’s utopian visions are being realised at a stunning pace and scale. This encounter with reality is a double-edged sword for these visions – it both proves their viability and exposes their weaknesses and limitations. I travelled to China recently to consider these prospects, visiting two recently completed Mad projects in dramatically different contexts: Chaoyang Park Plaza in downtown Beijing; and Huangshan Mountain Village in rural Anhui Province, a hour’s flight inland from Shanghai.

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The building is a gated community created for China’s wealthy elite

Landscape is the master metaphor animating the Shanshui City. A recurring question is what conception of landscape animates these projects, and how adaptable is this concept to the diverse settings of its application? Is it the artistic landscape of ink-wash paintings; or of ecological interdependency; or of a temporal unfolding through the seasons; or of organic shapes; or of nature’s meaning? The danger is that, under the pressured conditions of commercial production, this vision collapses to become merely a superficial formal effect in which the natural is conflated with the curvilinear.

Chaoyang Park Plaza is a mixed-use commercial complex on the edge of Chaoyang Park in Beijing, comprising a pair of office towers rising to 27 storeys, anchoring a collection of smaller retail, residential and office buildings loosely dispersed around a courtyard. The massing presents an almost literal rendition of shanshui imagery: the dual towers facing the park to the north are the massed silhouettes of the mountains, while the smaller buildings are the sculpted boulders in the waters of a notional stream flowing southwards from the valley between the towers. Even the dark colouring of the surface glazing recalls the smoky atmospherics of its ink-wash inspirations.

Early schematic sections of the project show a porous, open spatial matrix, with sky courts and greenery dispersed on the roof and at the upper levels of the towers. This aspect has largely disappeared from the realised version: the internal courts have been filled out with lettable floor area, and the rooftop is the typical mechanical junkyard of lift-machinery rooms, air-conditioning chiller units and window-washing cranes, concealed from view by the raised veil of the glazing hung from the overarching structural lines. In plan, however, the fluid lines of the site plan, with its terraced floor plates bounded by subtly curving outlines, all interspersed with islands of trees and planting, are convincingly realised, particularly around the smaller buildings. Viewed from the heart of the site, and from the heart of the city, the complex presents a vision, however bounded and fleeting, of a unified universe, one in which the gridded rectilinear world of modern urbanism has been softened and lacquered: a landscape of ‘melted Mies’, to adopt a phrase Ma himself used of an earlier project.

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The buildings are clustered to create continuous promenade sequences

Huangshan Mountain Village is a large and expanding series of buildings overlooking Taiping Lake, near Huangshan or ‘Yellow Mountain’, one of the most renowned mountains in China and a designated World Heritage site, whose dreamy landscapes have inspired poets and painters for centuries. An expansive area of steep and undulating ground on the southern flanks of the lake has been masterplanned by Mad as a collection of various typologies of largely residential buildings, in tower, branching and courtyard configurations, all anchored by a central facility comprising social and commercial functions. A ‘village’ in name and branding only, this development is a rarefied precinct of expensive second homes for China’s wealthy urban elite, a gated and – for much of the time – largely uninhabited community.

The first two phases of this project have now been completed, resulting in a complex of ten buildings, some rising as high as 22 levels. The buildings appear as stacked terraces, recalling the terraced paddies that characterise some of the agricultural landscapes of the region. The siting of these buildings in the landscape has been handled with great care, with some buildings clustered and their levels co-ordinated to create continuous promenade sequences, while the silhouettes draw on the soft mountain motif so characteristic of Chinese landscape imagery.

The overall effect, seen through bamboo thickets on the misty slopes of the lake, is dramatic and startlingly futuristic – it feels like one has stepped into a corner of a cinematic world dreamed up by George Lucas (who, with his planned Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, happens to be one of Mad’s current clients.) Here, from certain photogenic angles, we catch a glimpse of the promise of the shanshui idea: a built landscape that reflects the coherence and aesthetic resonance of the natural world.

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The project aims to reflect the coherence and aesthetic of the natural world

How should we evaluate these two initial realisations of the Shanshui City? Befitting the emphasis on landscape, the integration of built form with site planning is a key dimension of these projects. The structural and constructional strategies of the buildings themselves, however, do not suggest a fundamental rethinking of architectural principles of structure and space, such as may be found, for example, in Toyo Ito’s notion of the ‘emerging grid’. A typical concrete construction framework still forms the basis of these structures; the external form of the buildings is a product of cladding and carapace clipped onto this subframe.

Part of the discussion should then focus on the qualities of this surface layer. Here, substantial, painstaking efforts were made during the design phase to generate convincing effects. At Chaoyang Park Plaza, the double-curved surface geometries generated by the overall sculptural intentions are rendered tractable for construction through approximation as a meshwork of single-curved quadrilateral cladding and glazing panels, interleaving mullion lines and supporting subframe. This task in itself is a mathematical and engineering problem of considerable complexity, handled by external specialist consultants.

The geometric challenges are compounded by the physical imperfections and material distortions encountered during fabrication and the associated contingencies of installation on site. These steps, forbidding even under controlled factory conditions with digitally controlled machinery, are mostly undertaken manually by workers operating on site, in an economy for which construction is one of the principal sources of employment for poorly educated migrants from the provinces seeking opportunities in the burgeoning cities. The result can become a kludgey collision between fluid computer-generated trajectories spinning through a frictionless world of ideal forms, and the rude improvisations wrought on brute materials by harried labourers struggling to get all the bits to hang together.

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‘Melted Mies’: Chaoyang Park Plaza’s forms have been softened and lacquered

This gap between intention and realisation could, following a Biblical metaphor, be understood as the ‘Fall’ between the divine and the worldly. There is a discussion to be had here about the extent to which the architect should be cognisant of this Fall as part of the design process. The resolution of the initial fluid geometry into constructible elements is precisely about negotiating this gap; and in this negotiation, a detailed tectonic language of component and joint is born. A considerable amount of architectural invention and meaning occurs in this spanning between the ideal and the real; and where this is insufficiently considered or poorly managed, the damage to the qualities of the resulting architecture can become a lightning rod for criticism.

Such unfulfilled expectations are encountered mostly at the detailed level. In Chaoyang Park Plaza, steel cleats and props connecting the glazing mullions back to the concrete structure, roughly cut and welded on site, are deployed with free abandon, practically compelling interior fit-outs to include boxy elements to mask these imperfections, thereby obscuring any desired continuity between interior and exterior. The awe inspired by the towers’ Vaderesque mantles is undermined by mismatched glazing panels and clunky mastic seams. At Huangshan Mountain Village, the aerofoil slab-edge profiles that lend organic smoothness to the contoured terracing of the complex’s floor slabs are disfigured by pockmarks of crumbling concrete and unsightly water stains streaking their whitewashed flanks.

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The organic smoothness is disfigured by pockmarks of crumbling concrete

But such are the consequences of the Fall, which is always harder when starting from a greater height. Considered at the plane and weight of their images, both of design proposition and of built realisation, these creations are undeniably impressive. They strike the eye and mind with force and power. This is perhaps where the real significance of these projects lies – in the realm of representation. Both as branding drivers for investment and tourism, as well as bearers of the romantic and emotional artistic idealism of Ma Yansong, these creations construct place through their mediated aura as surely as they do through their material presence, just as the traditional ink-wash paintings depicting Huangshan invested their geological referent with a mythic quality. The traditional shanshui painters effectively created the Chinese landscape through their representations – a landscape that is as much in the mind as it is in the world. As Mad’s Shanshui City is built piece by piece, painstakingly and imperfectly, a vision of another Chinese landscape is gradually coming into being.

This article first appeared in Icon 168

 

Words

Julian Worrall

 

Above: Huangshan Mountain Village overlooks Taiping Lake

 

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