Ma Yansong’s 2019 TED talk: Urban architecture inspired by mountains, clouds, and volcanoes, takes you through architect Ma Yansong’s breathtaking architectural ventures that break free from the boxy symmetry of conventional construction. Ma’s exuberant and graceful designsfrom the dancing pair of curvaceous skyscrapers in Mississauga to the opera house that give you the feel of a snow-capped mountainYansong’s buildings have defied several design norms. Let’s take a look at what architects can take from Ma Yansong’s TED 2019 talk.

Ma and MAD

After MAD finished designing the first tower, in Mississauga, a city outside Toronto. He was told, “You don’t have to design the second one, you just repeat the same design, and we pay you twice.” To which Ma said, “You cannot have two Marilyn Monroes standing there.” And as Ma points out, nature never repeats itself, so now we have two curvy towers that dance together. 

“In this photo, you see two cities. The one on the left is New York, and the one on the right is Tianjin, a Chinese city that’s being constructed. And they have very similar skylines. Maybe they also follow the same principle. You know, competing for density, competing for more space, competing for efficiency. Therefore, modern architecture becomes a symbol of capital and power,” Yansong points out in his 2019 TED summit talk, referring to a photo. “So as an architect in China, I have to ask myself, what can I do about it? One day, I was walking on a street, I saw people selling fish. And they put the fish in this cubic fish tank. So I was asking the same question, why a cubic space for fish. Do they like cubic space?” 

In 2004, architect Ma Yansong founded MAD Architects, a global architectural practice committed to building organic and futuristic environments embodying the natural world. Since then, MAD architects have designed a series of imaginative structures across the globe that demonstrate how they envision the future of buildings, including the Absolute Towers, Harbin Opera House, and Hutong Bubble 32. 

TedTalks for Architects: Urban architecture inspired by mountains, clouds and volcanoes by Ma Yansong - Sheet1
Ma Yansong_by World Economic Forum

A Conversation with Nature

In 2014, when MAD Architects was chosen as the principal designer for the iconic Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Ma became the first Chinese architect to design a prominent cultural landmark overseas. Ma Yansong has set an unattainable benchmark for the new generation of architects to draw inspiration from, learn from, and take forward, he has played an immense role in shaping futuristic architecture. 

In April 2019, the Centre Pompidou started MAD X, a prominent exhibition of MAD’s architectural achievements that exemplifies and expresses the firm’s core vision for futuristic design, akin to dreamy earth’s capes that create a conversation with the environment. 

“So I have this question for myself. You know, why, in the modern city, we often think architecture is a machine, is a box? So here, I want to see how people looked at nature in the past.  By looking into this Chinese traditional painting, I found that they often mixed nature and the artificial, man-made, in a very dramatic way, so they create this emotional scenery. So in the modern city, my question is: Is there a way that we don’t separate buildings and nature, but combine them?”, The RIBA winner asks at TED 2019.   

TedTalks for Architects: Urban architecture inspired by mountains, clouds and volcanoes by Ma Yansong - Sheet2
Absolute Towers_MAD Architects

Going Forward

Today, Ma Yansong continues to explore contemporary architecture that’s grounded in traditional Eastern values of nature, his work aims to amalgamate Eastern design philosophy with Western designs. “What we’re trying to create is an environment that blurs the boundary between architecture and nature. So architecture is no longer a functional machine for living. It also reflects the nature around us. It also reflects our soul and spirit. So, as an architect, I don’t think in the future we should repeat those soulless matchboxes anymore. I think what I’m looking for is the opportunity to create a future with harmony between humans and nature.”  

TedTalks for Architects: Urban architecture inspired by mountains, clouds and volcanoes by Ma Yansong - Sheet3
Huangshan Mountain Village _MAD Architects

Ma’s work draws inspiration from traditional Chinese and Japanese construction techniques and theories. His architectural designs focus on the experience of space and its relationship to form. While Ma’s building designs often come across as futuristic, the ideas are tied to contextual roots in the natural environment, landscape, and the changing perceptions of space. His buildings are expressions of continuity between the natural landscape and the built environment. 

As Ma Yansong explains, modern cities and buildings are often made to “deal with efficiency, the function, and the structure. There’s no nature. People love to go closer to nature and other people, so we need to create environments that let people have these emotional connections.”  

So, if architecture can shift focus on creating positive, reinforcing relationships in architecture and with architecture, it can be ascertained that we can do much more than build individual structures. “We can reduce the stress and the polarization in our urban habitats. We can create relationships. We can help steady this planet we all share.”


Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.

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