Chinese architect’s first European project brings Asian sensibility to Paris
Published: Jul 25, 2022 09:22 PM
The UNIC residential building in Paris Photo: Courtesy of MAD

The UNIC residential building in Paris Photo: Courtesy of MAD

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

UNIC marks the first European project by MAD Architects in Beijing. It is yet "another" practice of the firm's head Chinese architect 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 sensibility."    

Urban nature

On a European train, Ma decoded his "urban nature'" theory in an interview with the Global Times. According to him, the naturalist ideal for urban design is not about embodiments such as trees and grasses, but choreographing an architectural environment that reminds people about the aesthetics of their surroundings and essentially serves residents' spiritual cultivation through a dialogue with nature. 

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

A small room containing a staircase and a toilet in an iconic Beijing siheyuan courtyard residence, Hutong Bubble 32 appears from the outside as a large silver bubble that mirrors the trees and brick buildings surrounding it, making it seem almost invisible. 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, 47, told the Global Times that this choreographed aesthetic ambience that blends into its surroundings, known as yijing in Chinese, has long been appreciated in Asian philosophy and is an interesting characteristic he brought to 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 landscape art, garden design and literature. 

"It is what is missing in the 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. UNIC is a new addition to a Parisian area that was deserted in the 1970s but was regenerated to become an Olympic Village to support France's attempt to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in 2001. 

Hutong Bubble 32 Photo: Courtesy of MAD

Hutong Bubble 32 Photo: Courtesy of MAD

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

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

"It has kindergartens that provide children from different housing equal opportunity regardless of their family backgrounds. 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 building in the world, Ma has also experimented with other designs that bear 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. 

Romantic realist 

"I feel being labeled as 'offbeat' isn't a bad thing, but I never try 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 have captured his realist romantic color. 

The ambitious independent designer said he wants to get involved in 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 function, such as creating three-branch buildings to ensure the "sunlight rights" of every household, challenge the traditional concept of public rental housing. 

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

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

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

In 2010, the gentle-hearted yet sharp-minded architect created the installation work Feelings Are Facts with Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Eliasson is 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 obscured.  

Fond of art himself, Ma told the Global Times that among the artworks he has created, his favorite is Ink Ice, a 9x9x9-meter ice cube made of frozen ink that melts under the sun to create black ink watermarks on the ground that show the Asian aesthetics he is perpetually pursuing in art and architecture.