Shan shui, a style of brush-and-water drawing that emerged in China in the fifth century, translates literally as “mountain water”. You might not have heard of it, but you will recognise it as soon as you see it — the highly graphic, elegantly stylised depiction of swelling rocks, cascading waterfalls and floating clouds each creating layers of ethereal, almost heavenly forms. There are steep peaks poking through mists and mountain ranges undulating like ghostly, cloaked figures. These beautiful scrolls illustrate a particular attitude to nature and landscape, a reverence that uses abstraction to reduce forms to their essence.
It is this style of representation that architect Ma Yansong and his practice MAD have used as inspiration for the astonishing Chaoyang Park Plaza in Beijing. Sitting on the edge of Chaoyang Park — which is as close as Beijing gets to something like Central Park in Manhattan — the development is intended as a way of melting the skyline of the city into the landscape of the park.
A group of six big buildings and a handful of smaller ones, it is dominated by the two tallest towers, standing 27 and 26 storeys and about 120m tall. They contain Armani/Casa-branded apartments and are linked by a dramatic glazed atrium with a roof that seems to hang in drapes like silk. The structure is surprising, intriguing and deeply dramatic, composed of slender arcing steel ribs with glass carved out in between.
A range of low commercial and retail buildings represents an attempt to create a more human-scaled streetscape than is usual in the surrounding, elephantine central business district (CBD). Below ground, a shopping mall also links the buildings.
The striking form of the structures evokes glassy black obsidian. They have been designed to look as if they have been eroded by water over millions of years, rather than constructed over a couple of dozen months. Close up, the effect breaks down a little as the individual panes and complex junctions heave into view, but the whole remains compelling.
As you might expect in a project inspired by the representation of landscape, there is an uncommon amount of greenery in between the structures, alongside reflecting pools and contoured planters, though nothing particularly original or unusual. There is a hint here of Art Deco, of a collision between New York’s Rockefeller Center and a super-streamlined 1940s, film noir automobile.
Inky black against the glassy, anaemic and generic blocks of the CBD, this is an extraordinary work. It may also be one of the last of a generation of experimental buildings which China’s president Xi Jinping dubbed “weird” architecture in a famous speech in 2014 (reacting to the glut of self-conscious icons delivered around the 2008 Olympics). Planners are cracking down on anything too exotic after an explosion of look-at-me towers and blobs. MAD managed to slip this one in just in time.
Images: MAD Architects; Hufton+Crow; Iwan Baan