Chinese architect’s first European project brings Asian sensibility to city Paris
Published: Jul 24, 2022 07:30 PM
UNIC in Paris, France Photo:Courtesy of MAD Architects

UNIC in Paris, France Photo:Courtesy of MAD Architects

UNIC, a building in Paris's Olympic Village eco-district Clichy-Batignolles, catches the attention of people with its unfettered geometry and weaved floor plates that define the free rise of the 13-floor residential building.

UNIC marks China's first European project by MAD Architects in Beijing. It is yet "another" practice 0f the firm's head Ma Yansong to discern nature's contemporary meaning in global urban architecture. 

As Ma noted, his designs shed light on Western modernism with a touch of "Asian sensibilities."    

Asian sensibility

On a European train, Ma decoded his "urban nature'" theory in an interview with the Global Times. As he noted, the naturalist ideal for urban design is not all about embodiments such as trees and grass, but choreographing an architectural environment that reminds people about the aesthetics of the surrounding and essentially serves residents' spiritual cultivation through a dialogue with the designed nature. 

Fourteen years before the newly landed UNIC, Hutong Bubble 32, a courtyard upgrade project, demonstrated MAD's pursuit to experiment with nature/urban combinations in an artsy manner. 

The project was a toilet-staircase-in-one extension to Beijing's iconic siheyuan(quadrangle courtyard) residence that made use of sleek silver surfaces to mirror trees and bricks that witnesses the changing times. 

The Bubble project was MAD's initiative to safeguard the cultural importance of ancient buildings during a time when urban regeneration trends were overpowering the traditional elegance of historical yet highly international cities such as Beijing. 

Ma told the Global Times that this choreographed aesthetic ambience, known as yijing in Chinese, has long been appreciated in Asian philosophy and is an interesting factor he brought to international projects like UNIC. 

"You see the [terrace] lines, their fluidity has a life force. This to me is very Asian. You can find similar aesthetic sensibilities in traditional Chinese shanshui [landscape] art, garden design and literature." 

"It is what is missing in functionality-oriented Western modernist architecture," Ma remarked. 

The project got its start in 2012 when MAD won the international design competition for the UNIC bid. It is a new addition to a Parisian area that was deserted in the 1970s but was regenerated to become an Olympic Village supporting France's attempt to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in 2001. 

As a cross-classed residence, the UNIC goes beyond aesthetics. 

Shops and a subway station are all packed into the building, as MAD worked hard to ensure it was connected to another nearby public housing project, which to Ma provides a sense of community for people from different backgrounds. 

"It has kindergartens that provide children from difference houses equal opportunity regardless their family background. Architecture is a tool to better social relations," he noted.  

Making a name for himself in the industry with his signature residential condominium Absolute Towers, dubbed the sexiest architecture in the world, Ma has also experimented with other designs that bears more cultural weight. 

"The Eyes of Sanxingdui" was MAD's 2022 design proposal for the Sanxingdui Ancient Shu Cultural Heritage Museum in Sichuan Province. It comprises six wooden buildings that look like eyes coming out of the earth to mark the more than 5,000 years of Chinese civilization. 

Hutong Bubble 32 Photo:Courtesy of MAD Architects

Hutong Bubble 32 Photo:Courtesy of MAD Architects

Romantic realist 

"I felt being labeled as 'offbeat' isn't a bad thing, but I never tried to be a 'casual' maverick. There is thoughtful consideration behind every seemingly bizarre work of mine."  

In his 40s, the architect has experienced both doubt and praise, but it seems neither captured his realist romantic color. 

The ambitious independent designer said he wants to get involved with more national-level projects, but along with such big dreams he also remains grounded in earthy designs that show architecture's essential humanistic nature - how it serves people. 

Close to Beijing's CBD, the MAD-designed Baiziwan Social Housing project hosts 4,000 households. 

The project was a game changer for Chinese social housing design. Its aesthetics and functions, such as creating three-branch buildings to ensure the "sunlight rights" of every household, challenge the traditional representation of public rental housing. 

Mostly importantly, the project attempts to remove tags such as "low income" and "socially marginalized" that are often stereotypically given to such house compounds through improved design. 

"It is done to make them feel social integration. Aesthetic and practical design deliver a sense of 'they are important.'" 

"Perhaps the project shows another side of me," Ma said.  

In 2010, the gentle yet sharp architect created a space installation Feelings Are Facts with Olafur Eliasson, a humanistic forerunner in the contemporary art scene who has created projects like Little Sun, which brings yellow flower-shaped solar energy devices to African communities to better people's lives. 

Ma and Eliasson's installation, which features dense fog and fluorescent lights throughout the space, allows audiences to explore their other senses in an environment where their sense of vision is weakened.  

Fond of art himself, Ma told the Global Times among the artworks he has created, his favorite is Ink Ice, a 9 x 9 x 9 ink-ice cube installation that melts under the sun to create black ink watermarks on the ground to show the Asian aesthetics he is perpetually pursuing in art and architecture.

Space installation Feelings Are Facts Photo:Courtesy of MAD Architects

Space installation Feelings Are Facts Photo:Courtesy of MAD Architects