Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Profile: MAD

After training at Yale, Beijing-born Ma Yansong spent time in London honing his theatrical, formal tendencies with Zaha Hadid before returning to China to found MAD in 2004. His aim was to “embrace the advent of a new era” and begin constructing a brave new world of undulating surfaces and twisting towers.

MAD made waves in 2006 as the first Chinese office to win a major competition outside China with its 56-storey “Marilyn Monroe” tower for Mississauga, Canada. This was followed by several high-profile projects back home, including the mega-blob Erdos Museum in Inner Mongolia. “Maybe Chinese tradition is invention,” says Ma, “to change the old conventions, to do something bold and new.”

Although he clearly welcomes the commercial potentials of this new era, it is possible to read a critical political agenda beneath all the gloss. The compelling Beijing 2050 project, for example, reconfigures Tiananmen Square as a “People’s Park” with vast cultural facilities buried beneath a landscaped mountain, while the Central Business District receives a floating, multimedia business-leisure land, hovering ominously over CCTV and other imminent Western interventions.

Originally published in Icon, April 2008

Profile: Work AC

“We think we’re funnier than OMA,” claims Dan Wood, who founded New York-based Work Architecture Company with partner Amale Andraos in 2002, after almost ten years leading projects in the Rotterdam office. “We use humour as much as possible,” says Andraos. “It makes the work more exciting, and it helps us to enter difficult situations.”

These range from the politically charged complexities of downtown Beirut to the whimsical aspirations of speculative culture parks in central China. The practice’s witty outlook is combined with an avidly analytical approach and broad urban agenda, applied with rigour to every project regardless of scale – from its Greenbelt City masterplan for Las Vegas to the psyche of the Manhattan dog, the subject of its first commission. “We did a lot of research into the life of the urban dog,” says Wood. “They have real problems, especially with their self-esteem” – an observation that led to Villa Pup, a state-of-the-art doghouse complete with treadmill and plasma screen simulators.

Decidedly more low-tech, and a product of the duo’s “eco-urbanism” studio at Princeton, is its recent winning proposal for the MoMA/PS1 summer stage. Public Farm is a dramatically tilted canopy of planted cardboard tubes, to be eagerly tended by a crack squad of urban farmers this summer.

Originally published in Icon, April 2008

Profile: Alejandro Aravena

“There is no point in discussing social housing in architectural terms,” says Alejandro Aravena, the activist-architect behind Chilean “do tank” Elemental, a collaborative team of architects, transport engineers, builders and social workers that has been rethinking low-income mass housing since 2000.

“It’s a social and political problem, but we can use design to address these issues,” says Aravena. Elemental’s projects work within tight policy restrictions and with few resources. The idea is to provide a set of conditions that allow the building units to be adapted and increase in value over time, redefining social housing as an investment not an expense.

“I have the luxury of operating, and being trained, in the third world,” says Aravena. “I can afford to be primitive enough.” This sense of the primitive, of boiling a design down to its most relevant and irreducible essence, runs through the work of his private practice, including several widely acclaimed buildings for Santiago’s Universidad Católica. These works attempt to “move backwards rather than forwards”, reflecting the basic values of informal education.

Aravena, who has held visiting professorships at Harvard and the AA and is widely published, is currently applying his disciplined approach to a children’s education centre for Vitra, to sit snugly between Zaha and Siza in Weil-am-Rhein. “I’m trying to be cutting edge. It’s more like what architects are expected to do.”

Originally published in Icon, April 2008

Ravensbrük visitor centre by Nikolaus Hirsch

“It’s not trying to be a monument,” says Nikolaus Hirsch of German practice Wandel Höfer Lorch + Hirsch’s visitor centre at Ravensbrük, north-east Germany. “There are enough historical monuments here already.”

The site was home to one of Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camps – rows of detention blocks conceived on a vast urban scale. But it’s also a popular lakeside picnic spot for weekend tourists. “We had to address a diverse range of users and deal with constantly shifting functions,” says Hirsch.

The sober, tunnel-like building plays host to exhibitions and conferences, plus a cafe and bookshop. It will also function as a temporary home for other nearby facilities awaiting renovation. “This demanded a kind of fluid room which could be easily reconfigured,” says Hirsch. This problem was elegantly answered with large movable wooden furniture components – each housing a secondary function – that are used to segment the long space and provide definition, separating history from coffee.

The linear interior is framed by uninterrupted walls of sandblasted channel glass that, typical of Hirsch’s material alchemy, appear to be more substantial from the outside and only reveal interior details at night. “We wanted to make something that wasn’t massive but had a certain heaviness, and could float easily above the ground,” says Hirsch.

The truss structure spans 25m over a slope and is only supported at two points. “All the surrounding buildings are very solid and have a close relationship with the soil – which has a certain significance here,” says Hirsch. “So we wanted to touch it as lightly as possible.”

Originally published in Icon, April 2008