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Ma Yansong of MAD talks about office design and organic style

There are plenty of lessons to learn from the way the Chinese architect fuses traditional and modern elements

For many Americans, architect Ma Yansong may be best associated with his proposed design for the now-in-flux Lucas Museum in Chicago, an unorthodox, curvaceous white form set upon the city’s lakefront, once poetically called a "moon mountain with a halo." But the architect, a protege of the late Zaha Hadid, has made striking organic designs one of his signatures, seemingly imbuing all his work with a shape that tells a story, such as his curvilinear Harbin Opera House.

Yansong was commissioned by Chinese fashion and retail company Xinhee to create a roughly 656,000-square-foot modern office and design center in the southern city of Xiamen. His design, currently under construction and nearing completion, offers both a sculptural form that symbolizes different aspects of the client’s business, as well as Yansong’s blend of traditional and modern elements, offering a compelling vision of the modern office.

The center’s curved design comes from Yansong’s main visual reference, a flower petal. Each of the six petals representing one of Xinhee’s sub-brands. Lofted to provide ventilation and create a ground-level park, and sheathed in glass and gardens to provide light and a connection to nature, the wavy, seemingly free-floating building serves both a practical and symbolic purpose.

Draped over the "bones" of the building, the interior supports, the facade resembles cloth placed over the human form. The radial layout offers each of the six brands private workspace, with a central atrium and gathering space that can double as a catwalk for fashion shows and displays. This atypical arrangement gives workers plenty of circulation paths, improved ventilation, and instant connections to the plethora of gardens and vistas, veiled by a layer of PTFE to diffuse light.

"Let workers connect with nature and have that escape," he says of the integrated green space surrounding the design center. "It’s not only beautiful, it’s energy-saving, too."

Office design is changing in China, says Yansong, as more companies seek showpiece spaces as lures for highly desired tech talent. As the government makes startup funding a priority, and cities battle to be the home of the next great company, there’s suddenly a lot more competition for good design.

"You used to hear about big massive companies, such as Alibaba, that were focused on expansion over culture," he says. "Now, all the companies are trying to focus on good design."

The XInhee project offers lots of open work space, as well as balcony gardens and green space. Yansong says that both communal work environments, as well as an integration between architecture and the landscape, are prized in traditional Chinese culture, so he tried to design with those principles in mind. The result, elevated by its form and grounded in tradition, offers an artistic take on sustainable design.