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Performing Domesticity: Ma Qingyun’s Father’s House

In Haecceity Papers: Home and Space, eds. Daniel Pavlovits and Barbara Penner, v.4, no.2, Spring (2009): 85-118.

To build a house for himself (or parents, being the closest kinship) is dangerously euphoric for an architect. In this position, an architect’s interior and exterior are forced to collide. It is either a fairy tale where no conflict is allowed, or a hide-out where antagonism is consciously avoided. But the process of designing is not quiet, nor romantic. It is developed with a mute violence. In his statement for Father’s House, an edifice originally designed and built for his father, Ma Qingyun, one of China’s most prolific young architects, hints at how domesticity, often considered peripheral to the public domain but conversely central to the individual’s development, may resurface as a complex site for self-definition. Here, where ‘interior and exterior are forced to collide’, the house is a space where different, and sometimes conflicting, notions of ‘home’ are played out. In Father’s House, the concepts of origin, Ma’s ‘Chineseness’, the authorial father figure and a domestic scene influenced by sentiments of filiality become key. These aspects highlight contemporary architectural questions of ‘home’, couched in an East Asian architectural context, albeit one that has been become much more global in the last two decades. The paper attempts to unpick, connect and offer a critical iteration of such questions. In doing so, it explores a kind of domesticity, which may be described as strategically ambivalent in terms of its aesthetics and possible interpretations – neither global-capitalist nor local-vernacular; neither patriarchal nor non-patriarchal; neither Chinese nor non-Chinese. A similar ambivalence is strikingly reflected in the architect’s trajectory. Ma (b. 1965, Xi’an) now resides in Pasadena, California and has been Dean of the University of Southern California School of Architecture since 2006. As much as he has collaborated with Rem Koolhaas on several occasions (most recently for Beijing’s CCTV project), the independent output of Ma’s provocatively named practice - MADA s.p.a.m. (‘strategy, planning, architecture, media’) - has been equally lauded. Thus, Ma himself exemplifies the shape-shifting, transnational, cross-cultural architectural figure gliding effortlessly between ‘East’ and ‘West’. Father’s House is key towards understanding the performative nature of a kind of Chinese domesticity, one which I argue, is operationally and semantically ambivalent. It works through a series of contradictions yet prevailing above these; being at once a recognizable sculptural box yet emphasizing locality in its craft and materials, exalting a father-son relationship yet remaining conspicuously unoccupied (Ma’s father abandoned the countryside to become an urbanite), sentimentally evoking the bucolic Chinese plains of Jade Valley while strongly reminiscent of Dutch architectural aesthetics. Following this, what can one make of the relationship between this house and its possible claims to identity, memory and origin? Is Father’s House an empty signifier that further mystifies ‘China’? In attempting to address these questions, the paper draws on ideas of domesticity, juxtaposing these arguments against Rey Chow’s proposition of filiality as a performative strategy for East Asian self-definition. Filiality is sustained when it is enacted through ritualized practice. Father’s House enacts filiality by revisiting native building traditions, materials and hierarchical relationships between self, family and state, but crucially subjecting such traditions and relationships to acts of ‘mute violence’ in its subtle re-appropriation and transformation of canonical architectural forms and meanings. This ‘violence’ or radicalism is routed towards individual self-expression and visibility, a quality alien to Chinese Confucian tradition, which is ‘traditionally inclusive, not insular, and strongly hierarchical’. While it may be convenient to categorize Ma’s house as a return to Chinese vernacularism, there is compelling evidence based on the architect’s public perspectives, training and his conscious use of Western imagery and influences, which inform otherwise. Hence, any urge to uncover an authentic form of modern Chinese domesticity within this architecture is superceded by a more urgent need to understand where domesticity may be positioned within China’s diasporic elite, and how it could be expressed, specifically through this house. Ultimately, through an examination of the aesthetics, tectonics and politics of Father’s House, the intention is to argue for a notion of ‘home’ that is performed, that is, a provisional site with tenuous meanings, which are continually structured and re-structured in relation to changing ideas of family, lineage, and a transnational imagination.

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