Dang Qun is one of three principal partners at MAD Architects, a firm whose design philosophy to “create a balance between humanity, the city, and the environment” mirrors her own. In her practice, she seeks emphasis on blending natural elements into the global architectural landscape. Projects she has led at MAD include the Harbin Opera House, which is acclaimed for its expert resonance of Harbin’s reputation as the “Ice City”, and the Ordos Museum. Qun has also instilled her design style, focused on an “eastern affinity for nature” to international projects such as the Absolute Towers in Mississauga, Canada and recently, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.
Educated at both Tongji University and Iowa State, Qun’s experiences have shaped her understanding of the differences between Eastern and Western approaches to architectural design and culture. In this conversation with her niece, Dang Qun discusses MAD’s design and publication work, Chinese and American approaches to architecture, and her process of becoming an architect.
Jen Wang: What was your initial entry point into architecture, and why did you become an architect?
Dang Qun: I have no idea, I liked drawing. I liked to draw and my cousin Dang Jie was an architectural student in Tongji University at that time, so I applied too. I don’t think I knew what I was getting into at all. At the time, it was a different informational era: we didn’t have as much information as there is today. We didn’t have many choices, and thought that whatever you picked was going to be the one thing that would stick forever. That was it. There was never a point where I thought I should do something else.
Who are the influential individuals in your architecture career?
That’s a good question. My undergraduate architecture degree in China at that time was just a study of a major that I liked. I never actually realized who I am, and what architecture is, until I went to Iowa State for graduate school. When I studied at Iowa State, my teachers helped me realize what architecture is really about. Catherine Ingraham, Jennifer Bloomer, and Michael Muecke–the three of them encouraged me and opened my eyes to the architectural world, while at the same time, I was discovering myself.
Was the presence of very strong, female architectural leaders in your life a significant contributor to the development of your attitude towards architecture and how you view the profession?
This question is very American. If you talk to any of the women who’ve grown up in China, this is never a question. Chairman Mao said, “women hold up half the sky” (妇女能顶半边天). Ha, it’s a very typical American question. It’s not about gender, it’s about who you are. For me, because I was educated here in China, I never had those kinds of questions or doubts about “because I’m a woman, therefore...” when I was growing up.
One of the reasons I ask is because back in 2012 when the Pritzker Architecture Prize was awarded, there was some speculation among the public about Wang Shu –
– and his wife!
Did his wife decline the prize?
I have no idea, I don’t know the story. Again, it’s a Western award, and all the values and how the award is set up are Westernized. It’s not my standard.
MAD’s Lucas Museum of Narrative Art project is currently under construction in Los Angeles, but the initial project proposals included designs for a Chicago site as well. Responses from Star Wars fans acknowledge similarities between MAD’s renderings and spacecrafts in the movie franchise; could you tell me about the research behind these designs?
It’s not from Star Wars. George Lucas has been collecting American narrative art and film throughout his lifetime, and the collection is the basis for the museum. The Chicago proposal was influenced by Chicago’s design–the landscape. That is one of the fundamental elements and thoughts behind almost all of our projects: that architecture is always part of the landscape. It’s never a freestanding object. So for Chicago, the building rises above; it starts growing out of the landscape and becomes a mountain. You can see similarities of the concepts behind our Harbin Opera House.
It’s all about the relationship between the so-called “artificial” and the landscape, and how we feel towards that specific site and specific project. So it’s futuristic feelings that we want to express; maybe that is some of the similarities between George Lucas’ Star Wars and our design.
The museum’s website discusses the intent to eradicate the division between high art and popular art through Lucas’ collection of narrative works. What are the challenges as a architect in designing a space that aligns with this mission and supports a variety of media?
It’s storytelling. It’s how art, art pieces, and artists influence generations of children. Same as the museum. What we create is something different than most other projects. Why does the architecture have to look familiar? Why does the architecture of the city have to be like this? Architecture is our emotion towards nature, and nature is not just green trees. Nature is the sun, the wind, the earth, the universe. That’s MAD’s whole fundamental approach, which is buried in all of our projects. We were founded in 2014, we’re still discovering who we are and what we want to show in our architecture. But we know that’s important to us.
This is an imaginative project, it’s the best. For us, it’s a project of a lifetime. We treat any project as the one and only chance to work on it because it will last more than our lifetimes. Anybody’s lifetime.
MAD definitely doesn’t shy away from obstacles. How have you approached political concerns or limitations?
I don’t think these things matter to us. We do what we think we want and we carry through. Architecture is one of the most demanding professions in terms of time, money, and complexity. You need at least five or ten years to build one single building from beginning to end. Then people start to use the building and use the space you created, and it will last more than your lifetime. I don’t consider any limitations beyond myself.
So with General Secretary Xi Jinping’s barring of “weird” architecture, how has this affected your practice’s values?
You’re too Westernized! Westerners always want to use their views and their opinions to add something to Chinese people and to China. And then on the other hand, they’re coming here and they think this is a good opportunity. I have no comment, ha, sorry.
This includes the Nobel Prize and everything. The West sets up these rules and they try to use this rule to value everything happening in China. But who is your president?
If you’re an artist, you should express yourself. You face pressures, you have other forces working against you, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is who you are. You have to know who you are and what you want to do. We are a Chinese architecture firm, but that idea is international. It’s in MAD’s blood, and it's what we’re doing right now.
MAD has produced a very diverse set of publications over the years. Your offices first publication MAD Dinner (Actar, 2008) is a series of interviews and I wonder, given the conversational nature of the book if there is a plan to revisit this style as a way to talk about your work.
It’s interesting, I don’t know. We published MAD Dinner at the very, very beginning of our practice. Shanshui City is what we are and who we are right now. You see the big difference between the two; you see how much we have been developing and growing from MAD Dinner to Shanshui City, so I don’t know. Maybe in later years there will be something else, which also challenges ourselves and changes the things we have built before.
What have been some of the major obstacles in publishing the MAD books, particularly in China?
For all three books we’ve used publishers based in Europe. We’re a Chinese architecture firm but we’re of more international practice. So to reach more audiences, it’s where we want our publishers to be. Actually, I’m not familiar with publishers of this kind in China.
Are there forthcoming publications we should look out for?
Not yet, not yet. Publications take quite a long time. The good thing is when we do publications like the Phaidon book (MAD Works) we are forced to collect and revisit what we have done. Today, we are far too busy to relook at our projects as connections after years and years of practice. We just published the Phaidon book last year. We are still young, I think more publications may come in another couple years. We can do another one of MAD Works.
Jen holds a BA in architecture and BS in biology from the University of Pittsburgh, and hopes to bring the spirit of architecture to the practice of medicine. She currently assists operations of clinical trials in oncology at Alliance Foundation Trials.