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Yesterday MAD Architects, the firm led by young Chinese architect Ma Yansong, released its first “initial conceptual design” of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, scheduled to descend on the lakefront next to Soldier Field in 2016.

The initial reaction was not good.

Greg Hinz: “It screams and hoots, and yells and carries on, in its own way defacing the city’s lakefront as much as any teenager with a can of spray paint when they come upon a vacant wall. It tries not at all to honor the greenery and museum spirit around it. Instead, as one wag here immediately dubbed it, it’s Greco-Martian.”

Edward Keegan: “In this preliminary form, the design could eventually become part of a design freak show where old and new approaches to architecture and landscape fight vainly for attention while degrading the city’s all-important lakefront…. Weird is, of course, in the eye of the beholder — but the initial conceptual designs for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art suggest that China could soon become an exporter of the weird.”

And, of course, Star Wars jokes. “Straight out of the Republic of Alderaan.” The Trib’s Blair Kamin played it straight in the paper, but couldn’t resist wondering if the design was inspired by Jabba the Hut.

So, yeah, it’s pretty weird. Why? Working back through Ma Yansong’s architecture can give us a sense of where he’s coming from.

One way of looking at it is, sure, Alderaan. And it’s a pretty good comparison. But try starting here, with the Ordos Museum.

Ordos is among the weirder cities on earth: a boomtown metropolis in Inner Mongolia within the Gobi Desert, built for a coal-boom population of one million people and currently housing about half that. In “Welcome to the World’s Largest Ghost City,” Darmon Richter writes, regarding a stadium under construction, possibly for no one, that “Never in my life have I seen anything so closely resembling the second Death Star.”

It’s a strange place to be an architect: building for a city that doesn’t exist yet. Ordos explained to ArchDaily that “somebody had to go first”:

Ordos Museum looks like a very random bubble sitting on the landscape. In this project the present was absent so you had a landscape with reference to a desert that had been there forever, and then you have a building that looks so unfamiliar, an abstract form sitting on top of the desert. However nothing belongs to the present, so I wanted to create this dialogue between the unknown, between future and the timeless landscape.

The Lucas Museum concept reflects the Ordos Museum, and suggests that MAD Architects could bring more light into the Lucas than the rendering suggests, and how a museum could be fit into such an amorphous design. Kamin mentions that the Lucas would include “a sky-lit, domed lobby”; the Ordos Museum also has a lobby lit entirely by natural light.

Another building from the firm looks even more like the Lucas Museum rendering: the Pingtan Art Museum, an artificial island consisting of three white concrete mounds mirroring the landscape and hosting the largest art museum on the continent.

So the renderings are less out of some Star Wars nowhere than out of Ma’s recent work, which mirrors, and acts as a visual bridge between, architecture and the natural world.

But it’s pretty obvious how the Ordos Museum and the Pingtan Art Museum, in their own ways, reflect the Gobi Desert and the hilly Pingtan coast. Blair Kamin rightfully questions how the lumpen Lucas mountain fits into its place on the lakefront:

Yet there’s plenty of artistic license in Ma’s concept of a mountain rising gracefully from the lakefront landscape. Chicago, after all, is pancake flat. Lacking real mountains, the city built soaring peaks of steel, glass and stone. All of them, with the exception of the three-lobed Lake Point Tower, are west of Lake Shore Drive.

So what’s Ma up to? Perhaps the answer can be found in a philosophy that undergirds much of his work: “Shan Shui City.” As he told ArchDaily:

If you look at ancient Chinese paintings, you see mountains but they are not real mountains, it is something the artists imagined. The garden with the rocks, the trees and the water – but they set up this scenery that only exists in their imagination. This term existed in traditional culture, but when you put this and the city together it becomes a new term: “Shan Shui City.” Not a city that looks like mountain and water, it is about a future-high-density urban environment focused on people’s emotions: what they feel and what they see.

ArchDaily’s own description of the Shan-Shui City concept phrases it differently but helpfully: “traditionally, it refers to a style of painting that depicts natural but imagined landscapes. These paintings reflect what the artist sees in their mind, not with their eyes, an idea Yansong believes translates to the development of cities. Just as these paintings reflect an inner dialogue, developing cities should be more cognizant of how the built environment makes its inhabitants feel.”

Or from China Daily:

For Ma, who is known for his futuristic designs, shan shui is not just mountains and water, but rather a modern interpretation of the Eastern spirit of nature.

“It’s not about a particular style or shape, or the usage of natural elements. It’s an experience of nature. If you feel comfortable with the breeze and the sunshine in the building, it is the feeling of shan shui,” says Ma, 39, founder of MAD Architects.

The concept of Shan-Shui is an ancient one; it literally means “mountain-water.” But the Shan-Shui City is newer, though it predates Ma’s work and is not unique to him; it arose as an urban planning concept in the 1980s and 1990s in China.

The timing isn’t a coincidence. Around that time economic reforms laid the foundation for the country to develop the world’s largest economy and its rapid urbanization. With rapid urbanization came crap buildings; with crap buildings came architects trying to stem their tide. Ma explained how the concept came about in a Designboom lecture:

It actually is a concept the developed in the early 1990s when China just started the modernization trend, just started to build those boxed buildings I showed. At that time there was someone pointing out why not restore the old-town spirit, and put on visually traditional elements into the design, as a reaction to that the original idea of ‘Shan-Shui city’ came from Dr. Qian Xuesen (a famous Chinese scientist from last century) which aroused discussions among the architecture field. [Ed. note: Qian was involved but I’m not sure that the idea came from him; I’ve seen urban planner Wu Liangyong credited.] The idea is simple actually; it is asking will our city be just like this, like boxes spreading all over? Will they be another Chicago? Of course he suggested to learn from cities like Hangzhou and Beijing. so I think in the future if nature and human can, on a spiritual level, go hand in hand…

Oh, hey, that’s us. There’s a reason for that, according to Ma, in an Archinect interview:

I think copying Chicago and Manhattan as the modern city typology was a very rough idea back in the last decade. They used photographs of Chicago directly as a rendering, as a proposed future image of the city, directly copied. So I think that’s more on the main stream side, like the government, the urban planner and the business people and also some corporate architects who work with the government closely. Some architects have this cultural responsiveness to the city’s architecture, but I would say that’s a minor group now, who are exploring the new possibilities.

It’s a story as old as time: cities start to grow and architects need to build something, so they bite other grand metropolises for ideas. Chicago did the same thing, when Burnham looked to Paris for inspiration and the White City was modeled on neoclassical ideals.

In response, other architects get pissed off (like Louis Sullivan did about the Columbian Exposition) and attempt to wrest a vernacular architecture out of the landscape, looking to history—local or national history—to build for the future. So Chinese architects like Ma went back to the concept of Shan-Shui, which actually hearkens back to the ancient history of Chinese architecture. Again, Ma in ArchDaily:

When we look at Beijing city’s old town; we see mountains and lakes in the city centre, the neighborhood is integrated into the landscape, but all these natural elements were man-made, artificially. It was a grand project. They made mountains, they dug the water so people, citizens who live in the city, will feel they live in between nature and the city.

It’s not just Ma’s observation. The landscape architecture of ancient Beijing makes Millennium Park look like a sandbox:

The Beijing city locates in the pre-mountain plain area. Originally there were no hills in the city. Since the Ming dynasty, the Jing hill has been built from the ground zero to strengthen the axis of the Palace city and create a magnificent view of the capital. The Ming emperor rebuilt the Beijing palace city on the foundation of the Yuan relics. He created the tall hill named “Wansui hill” using the soil from the moat excavation—the middle peak of the Wansui hill was then the geographical center of the Beijing city. During the Qing dynasty, five pavilions were added on the top of the hill, thereby shaping the central axis pattern. Mr. Liang Sicheng once praised: “the greatest thing about Beijing is its north-south central axis running 7 kilometers… it can be seen from the Jing hill clearly. There is no other city the world that has such an ambition and capacity to realize such a big-scale spatial concept.”

“I want to express the thought that since the ancient people were able to build a city with mountains and waters, like Beijing, Suzhou, or Hangzhou,” Ma says. “Why can’t we?”

MAD Architects cautions that the Shan-Shui City concept does not “imply modeling the city’s architecture on natural forms such as mountains. It represents humanity’s affinity for the natural world, and our quest for inner fulfillment, as expressed in philosophies of the East.” (Unfortunately, Ma’s new book Shanshui City isn’t available in English yet.)

But that’s not the point of Shan-Shui landscape painting either, the tradition from which the urban planning and architecture concept originates: “a kind of painting which goes against the common definition of what a painting is… not an open window for the viewer’s eye; it is an object for the viewer’s mind. Shan Shui painting is more like a vehicle of philosophy.”

In this context, the Lucas Museum is a difficult building. It’s grounded in Chinese artistic, architectural, and urban traditions, both ancient and recent; but it’s not representational, either. It’s meant to speak to the future of urban space, but its language is, at best, opaque. All this is intended to be felt—a language that’s hard to translate in any medium.

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