The Creators Project: What was your childhood like in Beijing? Were you happy to be a kid in the city?
Ma Yansong: I lived with my family in a traditional foursquare house. I had a great time during my childhood. There were lots of children, and I always played in our hutong [a neighborhood of traditional courtyard residences com¬mon to Beijing that usually features narrow streets and alleyways]. We played on the trees; we played in the small tunnel… and so on. When I grew up a little, I was very excited to explore an¬other hutong, so some friends and I decided to visit one. My house was near Tiananmen Square, and I still remember the first time I went through our hutong to a different one. When I ran across Chang’an Avenue, the first scene that came into my eyes was the city: tall, modern, majestic buildings. It was then that I realized there was a totally different world outside of our hutong. That was my first thought about cities.
Architectural design is just one of many disciplines that inspire your work. When did art begin to play an important role in your life, and did your interest in art lead you to architecture or vice versa?
From elementary school to high school, I was always painting during class. After graduating high school, I decided to apply for film school with a major in art. But they rejected me and told me I wasn’t good enough for the art department. They suggested that I look into architecture. I had no ideas about architecture at that time, but they told me to apply so I did. When I started studying architecture, I realized that there weren’t many differences between it and the arts. I started to become seriously interested in architecture after reading a book that contained the biographies of 100 architects. Through that book I realized everyone was unique, that everyone can create a different style of architecture.
What aspects of being an architect are most appealing to you?
As an architect you control lots of resources to build buildings, and those buildings influence society. We build them step by step, and they influence our society little by little. Eventually they become historical trends. This fascinates me, but also I know it’s very hard to reach this level, and it will take a lot of effort to get there.
When you’re first considering an architectural project, what runs through your mind? How do you interpret the landscape that will surround a proposed structure?
The city is just like a stage. It does nothing but provide a place to let stories happen. I think the city is free; it belongs to everyone. It should be comprehensive and sophisticated. When I was young I traveled to various villages with my mother who is an environmental engineer. I still remember driving in the car somewhere, opening the door, and seeing the beautiful mountains, forests, and grasses for the first time. Everything was green, and I was so excited. I eagerly jumped out of the car, but when my feet hit the ground, I quickly discovered the “green” beneath me was a mass of frogs. Ambiguous ideas like this and combining buildings with natural scenes are two of my biggest influences.
Many people see your work as futuristic. Do you feel that this is an accurate description?
I don’t really look at my architecture that way. For me, architecture does not only represent abstract thoughts. It also has the role of confronting public issues, such as population and public spaces. Architecture should provide a constructive resolution for the future.