Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Ma Qingyun, Architect

For the book MAD Dinner, I interviewed Ma Qingyun, founder of the architectural office MADA s.p.a.m. and dean of the University of Southern California School of Architecture. We talked about growing up during the Cultural Revolution, the difference between American and Chinese students, and romantic dreams.

One of the issues we want to look at in this book is the peculiarities of living and working in China. So let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your life in first 10 years.

It’s a good question. The ten years you’re referring to are actually quite unique. As I remember it, my life in those first ten years was one of total freedom. It’s outside of most people’s impression of China, because those ten years were during the ’70s. That was probably the worst period of socialism in China, but, as a boy growing up outside of a capital city, it was so free. The freedom that we experienced in that age was amazing, and that has given me the spirit or energy to think in any way and opportunities to engage so many different activities and realms.

As you mentioned, yours is an experience that would surprise many people, because the 1970s is considered by most an era of repression, not freedom, even for children. So, where did this freedom come from, and, if it is a thing of the past, where did it go?

The rationale behind it is: presumably you don’t have freedom, but if you agree to not have freedom, you can actually experience much more freedom. You do not claim freedom in a pure form, but actually live through a condition that is free. That’s a general point, but, particularly in the conditions where I lived, there were almost no expectations from the parents toward their children. It wasn’t like today where parents know there is a growth pattern for children, and they have to do certain things to make the children successful and make the parents feel good. Back in the ’70s, I don’t think parents expected their children to be something that will make them proud. The goal was really just to have children grow up healthily and happily, nothing more than that.

Second, the school didn’t impose anything on us. There was no homework, there were no excessive requirements imposed on the students. And because the society was rather homogenous, in other words equal, there was no self-fueled ambition or competition. In a way, it was an ideal community with no competition, no difference in terms of goals or expectations. So, it felt different for the adults, but as a child it was an almost utopian situation. Absolutely free, absolutely equal, and pressure free. As I said before, that relates to my current life, because it gave me a sense that I can do anything that I imagine. It’s not that I would have success in everything I do, but I don’t have fear of trying anything. That includes doing something, but also not doing anything.

So you’re saying that the lack of expectations during that period empowered you to make progress by freeing you of the obligation to make progress.

Yes. People from that era are quite relaxed – including myself. I’m relaxed about almost everything I do. I have intensity, but that intensity comes from an elasticity. When I stretch out, I can be very intense, but when I don’t I can be very loose. I think those of us who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s have that quality. Being elastic, I can deal with a lot of pressure, and if the results are disastrous, it doesn’t discourage me so much that I won’t try again. So I think it’s about endurance, tolerance, and flexibility in a way, and many people from that era have this rubber-like character.

You now have children who are experiencing those first ten years of life. Witnessing their development and the expectations placed on them, what are the differences that you notice from your experience?

I think we’re not doing as good a job as my parents did. We are so informed compared to them, so we start to impose things that are somewhat artificial. The children now have programmed activities and, because of our higher level of information, I think we start to give children excessive guidance.

For myself, I am always making arguments and stating things according to rationality, and I think that has a somewhat bad influence on the children. That’s a kind of confession. So maybe the next step is to leave everything up to them, and have them figure out what exactly the reasons are. I have a bad habit of trying to explore everything, including thoughts, and [my children] have even said that sometimes it’s bad – most of the time it’s bad.

But there are positive differences from my first ten years as well. The most apparent one is that they have so much more access. That includes games, but even forms of knowledge that, back in my days, only got to us in high school. They know about the Amazon, polar ice caps, they know about the environmental crisis. And I am quite envious of that. In their first ten years, they are probably twenty years ahead of where we were. We were basically dealing with mud, bricks, and spaces. We were running around, playing with spaces. The kids now are playing with electronic impulses, visual spectacles, and all these amazing things. So let’s see once they’ve grown up if they can do things that aren’t done by us.

That brings up the issue of education. You recently became dean of University of Southern California School of Architecture. Why did you decide to change your role from practicing architect to educator?

Basically I got discouraged by practicing in China. There are many reasons. One is that I think the society as a whole has not invested enough in creative, innovative thinking and efforts. I know people are trying and I know we’re not lacking in creative, innovative people, but I think, for a society of that size, we are not investing enough. Those individuals who are investing in creative thinking and efforts are not encouraged enough. That’s one reason.

A second reason is that the society is still financially low. You see money, you see rich people, but the society as a whole is still underdeveloped if you think of the entire population of 1.4 billion. I don’t think the social wealth is there to invest in the cutting edge of things. Chinese society is still bottom-heavy. The social wealth is still being applied to raising the average level of living standards and the basic quality of the society.

People like myself, Ma YanSong, and many others have had this bastard training. This means part of our education was done in the west, and what we absorbed during those experiences is based on a western social condition and on wealth. So, on the one hand, I’m very discouraged by China’s lack of investment in creative and innovative efforts. But I understand the reasons, and the reasons are so much heavier than our personal desire that I figured we couldn’t change it for the time being. The society has to run its own course. I call this a waiting period and, for me, the best way to handle this period is try out other modes of practice, so that brings me to education.

Let’s talk a little more about this concept of “bastard training”. What’s interesting is that you’ve experienced it from both sides – as a student and as a teacher. What’s your impression of the systems of architectural education in China and America?

I’m still trying to figure it out. Before I came to USC I thought I had a clear observation of both sides. Chinese education, for its large society and underdeveloped economy, is training social elites. People are not afraid to say that higher education in China is creating leaders. So there is already a class differentiation, and people have come to terms with the notion that they are going to lead the society, and the people who will be led also grant that status to the people who are educated. Somehow there is tremendous responsibility and prestige involved in Chinese training. Sometimes it’s paradoxical. China actually needs more skilled workers and professionals, but that doesn’t really have a place in the higher education system.

In the US, the educational system is predominantly providing skilled workers for the society. Entitling leadership is, in my observation, not the fundamental strength of American education. American education provides professional members that enrich the society rather than lead the society. Before I became dean I thought that maybe the education in the US is not ambitious enough. It has to embrace the idea that higher education is creating leaders and not be afraid to even imply a different social status for the students. Now I’ve been here for a full semester and the summer, and I think that my observation was half right.

What were you missing?

I didn’t realize that education in the US also involves a sense of legacy. There is a strong sense of support – either through giving money or other kinds of support. This is something that was new to me and I have not seen in China. There is a kind of spirit and drive to contribute back to the school and add means for future functions. This is something that is continuously happening in the US and doesn’t happen in China. That is something that I’m now trying to observe and come up with theories and comparisons between the two sides. I haven’t figured it out yet. I know what’s going on, but I’m trying to align both sides and really compare.

How do you think the different expectations created by the two systems influence the goals and dreams of the students?

Chinese architecture students have much bigger dreams and ambitions. They also have a much bigger sense of self-entitlement to solve bigger problems. US students have a lot more skills, a lot more knowledge and understanding of how ideas are linked to social and professional strength. But, again, I’m implying that they lack the bigger ambitions and romantic dreams. They don’t romanticize their responsibility to the whole society. I think that’s really apparent.

So, as a Chinese architect, what is your romantic dream?

My dream changes, but the most present and vivid one is that I can build whatever I design, with whatever means I have, with however much money I have, for whatever purpose I hold. I realize it is a dangerous dream, because it detaches architecture from its constraints and correlations. Once it becomes a free form, it is not architecture nor power.

Power manifests itself at the moment when it breaks the limits and boundaries. So, to empower that dream, limits must be imposed, self-imposed. When there are no limits, I may choose not to create buildings to demonstrate power.

That, of course, brings up the issue of clients and architects’ dependency on others to realize their ideas. How do you balance your obligation to your client with your obligation to your ideas and the people who will actually use your buildings?

I actually trust my clients’ obligation to the people. By definition, they are businessmen and developers. They know their users better than I do. And the best balance between my client and their clients is to come to terms of value. Their happiness is built upon a mutual benefit. An architect’s job is to double and multiply the value on either side of the equation.

The Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce recently forced real estate developers to make their billboards less emphatic about luxury and exclusivity, saying, “At present, there is a problem with certain advertising not conforming to the demands of socialist spiritual civilization.” What do you think of this? Is it possible to protect the citizens from the language of the market?

I welcome this. It’s true there’s a shift in the marketing language. It used to be about dislocation and alienation. It has always been an unknown dream from a strange land. That’s OK and creative. Recently it starts to claim a sense of luxury instead of simulacrum.

Do you think that the glamorization of architecture through real estate billboards and design magazines raises expectations among the public that real architecture cannot satisfy?

I don’t think so. For the general public, what they really look for from these billboards is how serious, committed, or costly the developer is. They are very clear about what they want to buy. The billboards are hardly for the buyers but for those who listen to the buyers. You know Chinese, they are extremely serious about spending less and buying more. Or, in other words, it has to sound like they got more!

In your opinion, what is the most important element missing from Chinese cities?

Nothing is missing from Chinese cities. We have everything we want. We also have everything we don’t want. That’s partially due to the enormous adaptability and re-adaptability of the Chinese attitude. Land may have been privatized, but the sense of illegibility and entitlement has not.

The one thing I miss when I am in a Chinese city is the sense of age. In other words, it is kind of ageless, so much so that children can’t find the right place, because everyone is kind of childish as well.

There are a huge amount of risks involved in developing at the scale and speed that China is now. Do you have a plan for if this enormous project fails?

Totally. We must then return to an agrarian situation. But I am not proposing we all become involved in agriculture. Instead, we look beyond an urbanism with a modern economy by engaging an ultra-modern economy, where pleasure and self-fulfillment and entertainment are the basis. That way we can then also imagine an agrarian settlement where living and creation (cultivation) are composed in a three-dimensional or even four-dimensional way. The density of an agrarian situation also interacts with compufarming, engaging the agricultural population in “hit count” business.

What would do with the small scale failures of Chinese development, for instance all the unfinished, “rotten tail” buildings?

A few years ago, I proposed to acquire all of the rotten tails: in Haikou and use them for the following purposes: one, shouting English classes in the evening for the government; two, an Asian arts festival and biennales; three, mountain climbing for real estate developers; four, camping for German students. But the only way I can do this is if I buy them, and, of course, I have no money. I heard Kai-Sin Lee was trying to buy them. I don’t know if he has heard my ideas.

Originally published in MAD Dinner (Actar, 2007)