A defining moment in architect Qingyun Ma’s career—–and one that inspired "a 180-degree turn" in his way of thinking about architectural practice—–came while he was working on a design for a university complex in Zhejiang, China. Encompassing four existing campuses, the project took up more than a thousand acres. For the first time, Ma explains, government officials and developers both realized that something as specialized as a university could serve as a model from which to build an entire, fully sustainable city. These linked university campuses, designed and constructed with a monumental simultaneity, could function as a kind of urban lab: a place in which to test out new city forms. "I had never really worked on a project of that scale, or with that purpose," Ma says, "to ignite the development of a city."
When Ma became dean of architecture, at the University of Southern California in January 2007, he came to the job with a uniquely exciting body of built work behind him. He had founded the design firm MADA s.p.a.m. (the initials are for strategy, planning, architecture, and media) at the age of 31 in Shanghai, and had worked with Rem Koolhaas on various joint ventures, which include the new, already iconic headquarters for China Central Television in Beijing and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Rounding out an already impressive resume, Ma recently served as curator for both the Shanghai and Shenzhen–Hong Kong architecture biennales; he was a consultant for the International Olympic Committee in Beijing; and he has taught at Harvard, Columbia, the Technical University of Berlin, and the Berlage Institute.
His career spans two entirely different pedagogical cultures. Ma, who earned his BA from Tsinghua University in China and his M.Arch from the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that architectural education in China is run along lines almost exactly opposite to the way it has been structured in the United States. "In China we were taught not to ask questions," he says, but "to work out issues following the historical wisdom and intelligence that has accumulated in the system. We just had to learn the facts." But it seems that architects in the United States have become less concerned with building and more with endlessly retheorizing a shared pool of abstract ideas. "People are taught to ask too many questions!" Ma says, laughing. "Often it feels like asking questions without answers is more important than understanding what you’re asking about."
MADA s.p.a.m.’s work has always recognized the importance of rethinking architectural ideas—–after all, the word "strategy" is included in its name. But Ma’s particular form of strategizing has been most usefully learned through doing, not writing. It is often during the construction process that he discovers new perspectives on architectural design. He explains that regional variations in construction practices have come to affect his design approach to a surprising degree.
In Pasadena, California, for instance, where Ma has been renovating an anonymous mid-century bungalow for himself on a difficult hillside plot, he found that he was often working with wood—–a staple of the U.S. construction industry, but less common in other cultures where brick, stone, and cinderblocks are the norm. Wood’s flexibility—–Ma calls this the material’s "tolerance"—–is something he’s learned to appreciate. Rather than precision-engineering steel beams to frame corners, for instance, wood can simply be lopped off and covered with drywall. If a particular piece isn’t long enough you can just nail two boards together. The imprecision of the material is exactly what makes it so versatile—–an abstract realization achieved through physical means.
Or consider the project known simply as Father’s House. Beginning in 1992, and taking nearly 11 years to complete, Ma designed a house for his father outside their hometown of Xián. During the construction, he had to learn what he calls "rhythmic patience": The local work season moves according to its own schedule, and he realized right away that if he wanted to keep labor costs down, he would need to pace the house’s construction with the local employment cycle.
Ma could thus "reduce the cost simply by waiting." While this certainly drew out the building process, it also helped to shape and focus his interaction with the details. And the details, in this case, are fascinating: Ma used a combination of well-worn river rocks and rough stones, along with concrete, steel, and wood, producing a modernist update of a vernacular village home.
As the firm’s documentation explains: "This collision of rough, organic materials with highly regulated and spare form gives the house an ephemeral quality encased in distinctly modern formalism." Of course, taking 11 years to finish building one house, simply to keep labor costs down, might seem a bit absurd, but Ma only half jokingly suggests that problems can be an architect’s best friend: "Architects should even dare to create problems. You have to have something to learn from or react against."
Through his various roles and job titles, Ma has also begun to grapple with larger issues, such as how architects can meaningfully confront the tide of real estate speculation and rampant development that has overrun Chinese cities. With whole new urban regions seemingly thrown together in the blink of an eye, architects could lose a historic opportunity to help shape the future landscape. Ma estimates that much of this can be addressed simply by convincing the right people—–government officials, private developers, and even members of the general public—–that architects have a key role to play.
Here the media side of MADA s.p.a.m. kicks into gear. Ma is seemingly unstoppable in his desire to get people talking, opening forums that didn’t previously exist, and pushing for entire new types of public discussion, whether at an international biennale or in a small lecture hall, with books he has coordinated, or simply through producing buildings. With a new generation of students under his tutelage, today’s building boom could very
well become an architecture boom.