A city built on impermanence -- and that’s OK

‘Most of them are so superbly ugly that they’re exciting.” That’s what Qingyun Ma, dean of the architecture school at USC, told me last Tuesday afternoon when I asked him what he thought of this city’s remarkable explosion of skyscrapers.

We were in a taxi heading east on the elevated Yan’an Highway, in the heart of the city, continuing a conversation we had started an hour earlier in a conference room at the architecture firm he runs here in the French Concession neighborhood.

A year and a half after coming to L.A. to take over the architecture department at USC, Ma, 42, a Chinese citizen, is just finishing the renovation of his house near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. He’s officially in L.A. during the academic year, and he spends his summers in Shanghai running his firm, MADA s.p.a.m. (the lowercase letters stand for strategy, planning, architecture and media). But the peripatetic Ma also seems to be a global nomad, spending much of his time at 35,000 feet above sea level, crisscrossing the globe sharing his views on architecture and obsolescence.


Part salesman, part philosopher, Ma prides himself on being able to articulate what he thinks are the most important principles of contemporary architecture: 1) Architecture is more about ideas than materials; 2) Ideas should not be inscribed in stone forever; 3) The idea has to be beautiful; and 4) Architecture has to be for others.

I’m not entirely sure how all of this fits together, but I get his message about impermanence. It all goes back to the skyscrapers and why ugliness excites him.

“If they’re ugly, they’ll be torn down sooner,” he explained before launching into a critique of historic preservation. Even as Westerners marvel at the enormity of China’s urban building boom, they also tend to bemoan the ongoing demolition of the country’s architectural patrimony. Even my guidebook complains about China’s “perverse delight in destroying its own heritage” and the fact that in Shanghai, an enormous city of 19 million souls, only 600-odd buildings have been designated as protected historical sites, compared with nearly 40,000 in London.

Ma sheds no tears for the quaint buildings that have given way to thousands of new structures -- and they aren’t all ugly by any means. In fact, he barely conceals his disdain for architectural nostalgia. “The concept behind historic preservation is foolish,” he said. “It assumes that there is infinite space for future generations. We have to allow people in the future to build their environments based on their own needs and intelligence.”

It turns out that L.A.'s lack of historical sentimentality is one of the reasons Ma enjoys his adopted home. “L.A. is for the future,” he said.

And that makes it like his home country. “I think our sense of our ancient lineage gives us a perpetual sense of obsolescence,” he said, referring to the Chinese. “I think we know that whatever we’re experiencing now is part of a long passage. Each new dynasty replaced the buildings that had been constructed by the last one.”

So far at USC, Ma has mostly played the role of fundraiser and spokesperson. But he hopes over time to imbue future generations of American architects with a sense of humility and obligation to society.

“Much of Western architectural education is wrong,” he told me. “Architects are trained to be perfect men in the pursuit of absolute truth. They’re taught that their ideas should be made concrete in the form of a building that lasts forever. But that’s selfish.”

As for U.S. architecture schools, Ma -- who has an undergraduate degree from Tsinghua University in China and a graduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania -- finds them “form-based rather than performance-based,” meaning that they’re too focused on aesthetics and not enough on how their designs actually “perform in society.”

“Architecture schools have become too vocational and focus too much on professional and skill-based training and not enough on leadership. The education should be a lot more philosophical.”

Ma thinks that the aggressive modernization of Shanghai is threatening to Westerners because everything here is suddenly changing and transforming, without a backward glance. Perhaps he’s right: We come from a relatively young culture, which could make us especially hungry for a sense of permanence and stability, and especially insistent that ancient cultures remain, well, ancient (particularly the ones we want to visit). Perhaps he’s also suggesting that we’d like to keep China in its place.

Ma’s worldview embraces a certain kind of chaos that he might say actually defines “tradition,” at least in the built environment: Things change, and that’s the way it always has been.

Maybe that’s as realistic as it gets. But from my seat in the taxi, I can’t help hoping that only the ugly buildings meet the fate Ma sees. May the beautiful ones survive.