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MaD Utopia


But the ambition and fantasy of his utopian visions that have spilled over into “sculptural objects” and functional designs (including, among others, a goldfish tank) have brought him to the attention of the world well before his fortieth birthday. As the creator of an entire program of design projects known as MAD 2050, Ma shares with all utopian designers an aspiration to render immanent what is transcendent. But the transcendence to which MAD designs aspire is that of artistic status.

Since any pleasing design is bound to be comprised of artistic elements, what is to prevent a design from being a work of art? After all, it may have the same aesthetic elements considered indispensable to a work of art. Ma Yansong is quick to acknowledge such features of his Range Rover or his Nike X Marc Newson trainers. Their artistic elements may be formal or even conceptual. They may be more sophisticated than much of the acknowledged art one finds in a gallery.

But traditionally, one fundamental criterion for determining whether an object can be a work of art has to do with function. In a relevant sense, an object is a work of art to the degree that it is functionless, except insofar as its “function” is purely aesthetic.

Ma Yansong Portrait
Ma Yansong. Courtesy of the architect.

Clearly, architectural design is functional by definition. Although we often applaud the architect who skillfully integrates form and function—perhaps because we intuit that some of such designs draw closer to art by appearing to subordinate function to form— the fact is that if buildings were not intrinsically functional, they would not be buildings. And to the degree that they are functional, they are less than fully constituted works of art no matter how much creative talent they may entail.

It is precisely the condition of mutual exclusivity between art and architecture that Ma Yansong’s utopian project addresses. In its implicit perception of function as the fulcrum of tension between art and architecture, the utopianism of MAD 2050 resides.

For millennia, architecture has not only been acutely conscious of its situation (in the sense of its placement or location) but has often successfully integrated situation with its own design aesthetic. Duchamp’s invention, or “discovery,” of the ready-made, which moves a common manufactured object to a space for viewing art, takes this idea even further by nullifying the conventional functionality of an object and reassigning to it a purely aesthetic character. By integrating situation as an aesthetic constitutor, the ready-made similarly destroys the distinction between the “artistic space” (traditionally, the space within the frame of a painting or within the periphery of a sculpture) and “reality”; it transforms all reality, including that which the spectators inhabit, into a constituent of the fictive artistic space.

In this regard, it is worth noting that 2050’s Floating Island Over the Central Business District is not only a discrete structure or, for that matter, a discrete complex; it is both a discrete structure and, simultaneously, it subsumes all structures around it. Overtly, 2050’s Floating Island component subsumes the Beijing Central Business District through a variety of formal means. Of these, notable is the decentralization of its structural and spatial composition that sets the eye of the spectator on no fixed course but causes it to dart around the work in an ever-changing and unpredictable path—a feature reinforced by the structure’s reflective skin, whose pronounced highlights would be set in flux by the movement of the sun and by the play of artificial lights within and without.

{pullquote}2050 will never be built in our lifetimes, but maybe it will.{/pullquote}

This decentralization of composition, a device invented in 20th-century abstract painting, generates a chaotic movement that draws the eye too irresistibly for it to rest on the conventional structures below. We are aware of their presence, but we no longer see the structures below in the same way, much as we no longer see the stars during a fireworks display.

A second formal tension of MAD 2050 is that of its inverse horizontality and its extreme vertical upward movement. To say that, contrary to almost all architectural structures, it is wider at the top than at the bottom is more obvious than to recognize that its elevated horizontal mass seems to draw everything upward from the ground in order to sustain it. This is the same movement of the formal character of the mushroom cloud of a nuclear blast.

By extension, it is equally a fact that MAD 2050 transmutes or transfigures a formal feature of destruction into a hopeful construction. At least symbolically, the destructive vision of the end of civilization becomes thereby the constructive evocation of a more progressive utopian culture.

This social utopianism extends to the MAD 2050 conversion of Tiananmen Square, which presents a vast green space of trees with underground complexes for libraries and other institutions of high culture under the assumption that original function of the square’s design—to accommodate military parades and the like—will have been superceded by the nation’s social and political evolution. Instead of a tower at the center, Ma has created a “negative space,” a system of clearings in the trees that become visible only from the air as the Chinese characters for “China.” As Ma states, “By 2050, a mature and democratic China will emerge and spaces for massive political gathering and troop procession like Red Square may no longer be necessary.”

But perhaps the most potent tension of the conversion has to do with events that occurred there in recent history—events that, at least in one sense, arose from opposing ideas of the site’s function and remain so vivid in living memory that there is no need to speak of them. Who can say what would become of MAD designs if suddenly their author were to find himself in a China that would finally embrace his fantasies? Ma himself seems hopeful. Says the designer, “2050 will never be built in our lifetimes, but maybe it will.”


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