True to its name, the primarily Beijing-based firm MAD Architects approaches every opportunity with a certain level of audacity. Shortly after its founding by Ma Yansong in 2004, MAD made a splash with its daring design for the Absolute Towers residential complex near Toronto. (Locals call the slinky pair of towers “Marilyn Monroe.”) The trade press pounced on the project, which, in addition to raising Ma’s profile, helped break contemporary Chinese architecture onto the global stage.
Since then, MAD’s footprint has grown exponentially, with a large body of work united by complex geometry and daredevil engineering. According to Ma, the goal of every project is to create an enveloping environment tuned to a particular emotional frequency. Many times the impulse is literalized in designs that resemble landforms, with stepped or slaloming circulatory routes and seamless exterior skins. Atmosphere is prized above subtlety; the reference point—say, a glacier or boulder—is impossible to miss.
With trademark intrepidity, MAD opened its first international office in Los Angeles before securing any projects in the region. Ma himself was drawn to the city’s apparent embrace of all architectural styles, as well as its varied natural scenery. And like Frank Gehry—the L.A. architect par excellence—Ma explores form through spirited hand sketches, which he then gives to his staff for digital translation. By all indications, he operates by vibes. “People try to rationalize my process, and I always go back to emotion,” he told AN. “Whenever someone visits one of our buildings, they’ll know how its environment felt when it was designed.”
Wherever in the world MAD makes its mark, its projects make sure to blend in by standing out.
MAD’s first project in Los Angeles—a mixed-use development on a tony stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills—was inspired by a driving tour Ma took of the San Gabriel Mountains. He was struck by the juxtaposition of ecologies, where homes set amid a forest command expansive views of the city, and endeavored to achieve the same balance in the urban center. Accordingly, each of Gardenhouse’s 18 condos looks onto a richly planted central courtyard and the city outside. “The residents can participate in this shared community one moment,” said Ma, “and feel a sense of reflective privacy the next.”
Originally slated for Chicago, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art broke ground in Los Angeles’s Exposition Park in 2018. The 290,000-square-foot building was designed as a new gateway to the park, which also is home to the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Natural History Museum. Set within an 11-acre landscape by local firm Studio-MLA, the spellbinding form can’t easily be placed within the Star Wars galaxy (creator George Lucas is the institution’s primary benefactor), though this is perhaps for the best. Had MAD indulged its usual tendencies, the city might have ended up with a Sandcrawler. The museum is projected to open in 2023.
When MAD was invited to design a 22-story office tower in the middle of a low-rise portion of downtown Hollywood, Ma knew he wanted to break with convention. “While there’s a globally vivid imagination of Hollywood as a dream factory, the majority of the buildings there are actually quite banal and utilitarian,” he said. The glimmering $500 million tower, suitably named The Star, will feature a domed rooftop restaurant and garden inspired by the outdoor design of the nearby Hollywood Bowl. A glass exterior elevator is likely to become a destination in its own right.
The firm recently broke ground on a 16-story mixed-use tower in Denver’s trendy River North Arts District. A multistory crevasse runs down the front of the project to create a biophilic ribbon containing gardens and outdoor amenities and culminating in a rooftop terrace with a pool. Apparently, the steep mountain landscapes surrounding Denver inspired the unconventional parti. The project is set to open in late 2023.