MAD Architecture is often characterized by its novel approach to the old "nature vs. civilization" debate, designing structures that are linked to their environments in atmospheric, if not biophilic, ways. I spoke with Ma Yansong after he visited Los Angeles in April, both to launch a new book and prepare MAD's new branch opening. We spoke about conflicting architectural ideals across the Pacific, and the value of nature in cities.

Ma Yansong
Ma Yansong © MAD Architects

How would you compare the Chinese version of “nature” to a western idea of nature? What separates the “natural environment” from the “built environment”?

In China, when you look at the traditional paintings, they are not exactly what the artist sees from the real scenery. They have this personal imagination in the paintings. The interesting thing is when you paint something, like a stone or tree,  the stone looks very ugly. The tree as well will look like it's been through many difficulties through the years of its growth, and the paintings describe these kind of things. I think the nature element in the paintings reflects the spirit of the creator, of humans. Traditional Chinese artists, when they look at nature, they want to use the drawing to reflect their own imagination, or their own spirits, or their own understanding of their lives. So nature comes to have a very strong cultural, or even spiritual meaning.

I think in the west, nature is more on the side of scientific meaning, especially in modern times. Nature is seen as an environment, in isolation from the artificial and man-made. Many parks in the west, they're all "protected" natural landscape, even in parks in the city. So nature in the west is something different and artificial, but in the east, all the natural elements have already been transformed into something artificial, they're all being reimagined. Also, in the Japanese garden, you see those stones -- imagine those are mountains, and the white sand represents an ocean.  Something like that, of people watching or walking through that, they will imagine something else. I think there's a large difference between the way we look at nature