"Ma Yansong is not just winning competitions," notes Jeffrey Johnson, who heads the China Megacities Lab at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture. "His Floating City is a very positive utopian vision about creating imaginary futures."
Role Model and Rebel
Ma's victories in international architecture contests have also opened the way for him to design innovative cultural landmarks like the China Sculpture Museum -- shaped like a wave frozen in time -- and the Harbin Culture Island, near the northern Chinese border with Russian Siberia. His experimental designs and advances in Europe and North America have likewise helped propel his transformation into an icon for architecture students and studios across China.
Yet with all his accolades, Ma Yansong is also considered something of a rebel. During an exhibition in Venice titled "Beijing 2050," he proposed transforming the political center of Beijing -- Tiananmen Square -- by covering it with lush forest. Although the design was not explicitly political, it was clearly a gesture toward the square's history as the site of student-led pro-democracy protests in 1989 that were violently suppressed by the Communist regime. In its current form, says Ma, "Tiananmen Square is a symbol of the empire." His proposal to green the square would subvert that heavy symbolism.
"Ma Yansong is the most utopian architect working in China today," says Daisy Guo, project manager for the China Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale for architecture. Pritzker on the Horizon?
"If there is one star architect in this generation [in China], Ma Yansong could be it," says Johnson of Columbia University, who adds that Ma is well-positioned to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in the future. "His more radical proposals are visionary, but also critiques," Johnson adds. "Yet they are also very optimistic proposals about the way to think about the future."
The Pritzker Prize jury would consider both built and conceptual works, like the provocative Tiananmen Square Forest, while reviewing a potential award.
Ma suggests his plan to remake the symbolic heart of Beijing could have rippling effects across Chinese society. "If this really happened, it would change all of China," he says. But for the present, he adds, the fate of Beijing's architectural future, and of Tiananmen Square, is "still ordered from above, not proposed by utopians below."