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Architect Yansong Ma at the announcement of his winning the Absolute international architectural design competion in 2006. (Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail)
Architect Yansong Ma at the announcement of his winning the Absolute international architectural design competion in 2006. (Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail)

The perfect house

Marilyn throws a curve at traditional Toronto condo design Add to ...

When the wraps came off Yansong Ma’s design for the foxily curvaceous Absolute condominium tower in Mississauga almost six years ago, applause rang out from every quarter. Critics at home and abroad hailed the project as a landmark breakout from cereal-box modernism, and home buyers snapped up the product. Popular demand to live in Marilyn Monroe – as pundits instantly dubbed the slinky building – was so feverish, the developers (Fernbrook Homes and Cityzen Group) quickly put its young Beijing-based architect to work on a second, adjacent high-rise in the same style.

Noting recently that the original 56-storey Marilyn was finished and her shorter sister mostly done, I fell to wondering what Mr. Ma, now 35, thought of his early handiwork. Marilyn was his very first tower, after all, and it launched him on a career that has gone from strength to strength since the spring of 2006. He has crafted imaginative hotels, museums and commercial and residential high-rises across China, and is now at work on his first European commission, in Rome.

But before I could pick up the phone, I discovered that Mr. Ma was flying into Mississauga to attend a special presentation about the Absolute buildings at the sprawling suburban city’s annual urban design awards ceremony. So, it was that the Yale-trained architect and I met in a Mississauga restaurant just under the elbow of the first Marilyn.

“I am really satisfied,” he told me. “And now, with two towers, the concept has become stronger, more interesting.” In contrast to a single tall building, standing in isolation like a sculpture, “two towers make an urban condition.”

Mr. Ma also said he appreciated the freedom given him by the developers to cast the second tower in a shape somewhat unlike the first one, though similarly sinuous. “Modernism dictated duplication, sameness. The twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, for example, were all about standardized mass production, efficiency. But our idea was unique; it was to create two different forms, both flowing, organic, emotional. Marilyn does not represent the power of capital. It represents nature.”

The word “nature” comes up often in Mr. Ma’s answers to any question about architecture. But listening to him, you get the sense that “nature” isn’t just a design strategy, incarnated in the fluid volumes he admires and generates. Nor is it something opposed to culture, or the city, or civilization. Rather, “nature,” the way he uses the term, is a spiritual quality that architects, designers and artists should be constantly weaving into the fabric of urban life.

“When we did the Absolute towers,” he said, “my ideas were not very systematic. I am now clearer: The future city will be more involved with nature than it is today. In classical times, people built churches and temples for religious reasons. In modern times, architecture serves neither God nor people. The modern city is about power, who can master the resources – not people. But in the future, the architecture of cities will become very human, natural, emotional.”

“Going natural,” however, does not mean the same thing for Mr. Ma that “going green” signifies for most Western architects.

“People talk about green architecture all the time,” he said. “I saw a LEED-certified building in New York that looks like something from the 1980s – a very pure glass box. I can’t see how it could be a green building if it was just about technology – the glass you use, the mechanical systems, and so on. In the end, you can build an ordinary curtain-wall building and still get LEED points. If all [the architects]care about is technology, the building will be rubbish in 20 years.”

For Mr. Ma, a tall “green building” should be literally green – graced, that is, by shrubs and trees and flowers flourishing in the spaces where people live and work. Only when cities are full of such structures will they become the humane places this architect wants them to be.

“I think the high-rise is the most non-human building type in the world,” Mr. Ma declared. “Most [high-rises]are designed by commercial offices, and most are not respectful of people, not about the emotions of people. I want gardens in the sky, waterfalls. When you have a vertical city, you need a connection to the sky, a park in the sky. It’s not only about making people feel better when they are working in high-rises. It’s also about the quality of urban life, about encouraging life in three-dimensional urban space.”

Though their curving profiles express Mr. Ma’s convictions about nature in the city, the Marilyn towers are not “green” structures of the kind that now deeply interests him. But the Mississauga high-rises are important for other reasons.

They talk back to condo developers in Toronto who complain that they can't build and sell anything except the same tall boxes they’ve been flogging for decades. And the market success of the towers shows that supple, flexing shapes can be effectively incorporated into real-world skyscrapers without driving construction costs through the roof. This news won’t shift whole paradigms. But it does mean that, just maybe, the reign of the same-old, same-old modernist residential block in Toronto is a little less secure than it was before Marilyn sashayed into town.

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