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Global as a matter of course

China native Qingyun Ma, USC's new architecture dean, is steeped in a bicontinental approach: Eastern tradition meets Western technology--with the freedom to blend the best of both.

January 28, 2007|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

Xian, China — QINGYUN MA's eyes dart left and right as he sits in a Buick van hurtling west on National Highway No. 310.

The road swerves through China's dusty northwest plateau, passing honeycombs of cave dwellings and adobe homes on cliffs. Large arch bridges cross Wei River. Terraced fields, carved in hues of yellow, brown and green, climb up to the skies.

"It's so beautiful, amazing," Ma says. "This is better than any architecture. The peasants are the architects....

"If this sets up right, I'm thinking of setting up a USC studio here. I want to continue the university program in a place where culture, landscape, modernity and hands-on construction meet."

Ma, the new dean of USC's School of Architecture, was born and raised here in Xian, China's ancient capital and eastern terminus of the Old Silk Road, home of Tang Dynasty tombs and the famed terra cotta soldiers. But on this late December afternoon, Ma, wearing fashionable knee-high boots and safari jacket, was on a road trip west of the city to explore stones and natural materials that could be used for a public bathhouse that he's helping build in a remote apple-farming village near Gansu Province.

The bathhouse is pro bono work for Ma and his Shanghai-based firm, MADA s.p.a.m., but it epitomizes his approach to the profession. The 10,000-square-foot facility will employ green technology -- solar panels and treated water -- and meet a basic health need for farmers while giving village women a communal center where they can chat and drink tea.

"The bathhouse is meant to be a new cathedral," he says, walking along a gulley in the village.

Ma, 41, is the first foreign national to head USC's architecture school. He began this month, filling a post that had been vacant since the last dean, Robert H. Timme, died in October 2005.

University officials said they wanted the school to become more global, and few seemed surprised that they picked a Western-trained star from China, given Los Angeles' links to the Pacific Rim and the Asian country's spectacular rise in the world, not to mention the nation's building craze that has lured architects from all over. UCLA recently tapped 44-year-old Hitoshi Abe from Japan to take over as chair of its department of architecture this spring.

"It's a smart shift," says Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, noting that American architecture programs "are shamefully focused on the West."

Koolhaas first met Ma in 1995 when Ma was working as an architect in New York for Kohn Pedersen Fox. He asked Ma to help him on a study of southern China's boom, which later became the book "Great Leap Forward," and has since sought his advice for other projects, including the tubular China Central Television headquarters in Beijing.

Ma has "a very genuine and profound understanding of China, not only classical but contemporary and also Communist," says Koolhaas, who nowadays comes to Beijing once a month for business. "I think he will reinterpret existing traditions of the school through the lens of a different culture."

Indeed, while a visiting instructor at Columbia University last fall, Ma worked with his class to turn an abandoned cement factory in southeast China into a boutique hotel. He wants to extend such programs at USC. Ma talks about sending students to Shanghai to investigate smart living as well as teaming them with counterparts in South America, Europe and the United States. An affable man with rectangular black glasses and a patch of hair under his chin, Ma could easily be mistaken for a student and is clearly comfortable in an academic setting though he plans to continue to design in the U.S. and China while serving as dean. He has lectured at Harvard, Penn and several top architecture programs in Europe.

"Schools have their own boundaries, but students should not," he says.

In China, Ma and his firm have built a reputation for designing distinctive modern buildings, with all of the West's technical and material sophistication, while preserving Chinese traditions.

One example is the public library in Qingpu, about 45 minutes southwest of Shanghai. The building, located on an islet in a man-made lake, looks like two floating ribbons that undulate with the contours of the water. Ma says the form and shape of the Thumb Island project recall a set of rocks in a typical Chinese landscape composition.

He designed the library to be used as a leisure garden. Bamboo, brush and rocks surround the grounds. People can walk from one bank of the lake onto the roof of the building, which is covered with stone roadways, wooden stairs and grass.

On a recent afternoon, migrant workers were lying on the slope of the curved roof bathing under the sun. "Oh, this is great," Ma says. "This is exactly what I hoped people would do."

Zheng Shiling, professor of architecture at Tongji University in Shanghai, likens Ma to the former Boston Symphony music director Seiji Ozawa, who has spoken about his Japanese sensibility in interpreting Western music.

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