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As his ‘outer space’ buildings rise across the U.S., the Lucas Museum’s architect explains his approach

‘I find that in the U.S. when I show my work to people they say this is too crazy, we cannot do this here,’ Chinese starchitect Ma Yansong says.

The sculpted curves of architect Ma Yansong’s otherworldly buildings have become landmarks across China. From the smooth mountain fluidity of the Harbin Opera House in the north to the Wormhole Library in the southern island city of Haikou that looks like an orb of Swiss cheese, some seriously bonkers designs have been brought to reality by MAD Architects, Ma’s aptly named firm.

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Ma Yansong [Photo: Greg Mei/courtesy MAD Architects]
They’re perhaps not totally surprising in China, where rapid urbanization has opened the door to what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called, pejoratively, a trend of “weird building.” Now Ma is bringing that trend to the States. A mixed-use building that combines green walls and peaked residential roofs opened in Beverly Hills in 2018, and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, the firm’s most significant U.S. project to date, is under construction. Several other U.S.-based projects, from Denver to Miami, are in the design phase.

[Cover Image: courtesy Rizzoli]
To mark the broadening of his work, Ma has just released MAD Rhapsody, his firm’s first monograph, which features more than 20 buildings, parks, and cultural venues the firm has designed.

Most are in China. “At least in the past 20 years, China has had more opportunity than in the U.S. because they’re in different phases. China is building a lot, and many different cities are all building,” Ma said in an interview with Fast Company. “Because of this overall quantity, young architects with new ideas will have a chance.”

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At 47, Ma is still among those young architects. After founding his firm in 2004 and scoring the commission in 2006 for a sinuous two-tower residential complex in Mississauga, Ontario (about 24 miles from Toronto), that many locals call the Marilyn Monroe Towers, Ma focused much of his attention to the growing market in China, where his firm is based.

Making headway stateside hasn’t been as easy. “In the U.S. the owners and developers are much more experienced. They’ve built before, they know what’s quality,” Ma says. “But the negative part is they already know what they want, and sometimes they feel doing something new becomes more challenging, more risky. I find that in the U.S. when I show my work to people they say, ‘This is too crazy, we cannot do this here.’

“In both countries there’s always a small group of people willing to do new architecture,” he adds. “Those are not many clients, but I feel these people are really special.”

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[Image: courtesy Lucas Museum of Narrative Art]
One such client is the Lucas Museum, which, after striking out in two other locations, found a home for George Lucas’s storytelling museum in Los Angeles’s Exposition Park. Set to open in 2023, the building Ma’s firm designed is like an intergalactic cruise ship straddling a major roadway into the park. Ma says the design was partly inspired by the huge canopies of massive ficus trees in the park. He sees the building acting like a gateway. “People will have a very strong feeling of arrival to this cultural space,” he says.

Gardenhouse [Photo: Nic Lehoux/courtesy MAD Architects]
Across town, in Beverly Hills, another MAD Architects project has its own connection to the surrounding area. Gardenhouse is a five-story mashup of a building, with a hedge-like green wall along its ground-floor commercial space and a smattering of white, pitched-roof residential cabins on top. Ma says it’s a reflection of what you see driving around tony Beverly Hills: the tall green walls surrounding wealthy people’s homes and the peaks of their roofs just visible above. “A lot of people say my architecture is from outer space, but I feel it’s very contextual,” he says.

Gardenhouse [Photo: Nic Lehoux/courtesy MAD Architects]
Each project, Ma explains, is designed not to make a showstopping spectacle or unexpected alien form, but rather as a vision of how the built world can be different. He says he’s more inspired by the emotion a site raises in him than any desire to create a signature style.

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“When you have a style, people will ask you to repeat it. They come to ask you to do a building because they like your style, and you cannot just change. So style becomes more like a trademark. But that also limits you,” he says. “When you’re older that’s fine, because your thinking is already more fixed and you just do it, repeat. For me, I’m still curious about what different things I can come up with next time.”

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