Valeria Pestereva, Strelka Institute Graduate, Class of 2016, told Strelka Magazine about her experience working at one of the largest and most demanding Chinese studios, learning Chinese and taking “a journey of a thousand li”.
A Novosibirsk native, Valeria graduated from the Moscow Architectural Institute in 2014. Upon graduation, Valeria took a month and a half long internship at M57, a bureau based in Granada, Spain, followed by a four-month internship in China, where she stayed for another year as a hired employee. After receiving an invitation from the SPEECH bureau, Valeria returned to Moscow, where she co-founded the PARK bureau together with a friend and decided to enroll at the Strelka Institute.
MAD is an international architectural studio founded in China in 2004 by Ma Yansong. MAD projects are futuristic and employ most advanced building technologies. In 2011 Ma Yansong was awarded a RIBA Fellowship by the Royal Institute of British Architects and was recognised a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum in Davos. MAD projects have been implemented in eight countries across the world. The company maintains offices in Beijing and Los Angeles. MAD’s key partners include Ma Yansong, Dang Qun and Yosuke Hayano.
Duration: 4 months or longer
Application deadline: open year round
Support: visa preparation, accommodation search, paid lunches and dinners
Internship compensation: 3,000 CNY (462 USD)
MAD’s work code and philosophy
MAD’s team structure is mostly generic: the backbone of three founding partners is supported by common partners, followed by project managers, every one of whom is in charge of one’s own work team of three to four interns and one or several lead architects. MAD is constantly in search of fresh interns: I think their entire work model is based on using cheap labour. At some point the number of employees simultaneously working at the office peaked at 50 or 60 people, but the employee turnover is generally high, and staff changes take place approximately every two weeks.
On Tuesdays, the teams presented their results and shared research insights during a company lunch. At MAD, the educational component is held in high esteem, and every employee is encouraged to contribute. Success of every project depends on team members having shared vision and being on the same page with each other.
Everybody at MAD uses WeChat, a local alternative for Viber: we used to say that the whole office was ran with WeChat. In the course of theproject we were often required to present reports on how the project is progressing, so we used the chat to send images and presentations to our partners, who were often in the middle of a trip. Ma, for instance, could leave his comments to our presentations on a voice recorder. The recordings could be accessed at any time, and not a single thought ever slipped through. Everything was organised with utter precision.
Every project developed by MAD revolves around man and nature, and that appealed to me. Every project we worked upon was regarded as an interpretation of the environment. This lies at the very core of Chinese philosophy and culture, and therefore of their art. The Chinese often refer to shan shui concept, which literally means mountain-water. Shan shui is also a traditional Chinese painting style, which depicts painter’s impressions from travelling over the mountains and lakes rather than the mountains and lakes themselves. Many call MAD’s works art, but in my opinion, these curved lines represent their attempts to comprehend relationship between nature and natural forms. Maybe later they will manage to express this in a clearer form.
MAD realises that they set the trend on the global architectural scene, that they are ahead of the movement. When they suddenly got an influx of orders for social housing in China, I and three other guys were assigned to conduct a massive research into the types of social housing built worldwide from the 19 th century and to this day – MAD wanted to predict the next step. That assignment took us 45 days of non-stop research. We worked through weekends, dawn till dusk.
What I worked on
When I joined the company, I got assigned to a team developing Chaoyang Park project. Chaoyang Park is a multifunctional areain Beijing with residential buildings, two multi-storey office buildings and shopping malls. We were doing the DD, the project phase involving fine drawing of the details. I found that very interesting as I was assigned to think up a bracket for a 3D-curved glass cornice – an architectural element supporting a complex glass panel. I designed the bracket together with the project’s supervisor. We had an interesting dialogue.
After that there was a contest for Moscow International Financial Center in Rublevo-Arkhangelskoye, curated by Strelka KB. As the only Russian native at MAD, I got invited. In the end, I was the only person acquainted with every little detail of the project. I had to study the brief and the Russian regulations and translate them for the others. The project was managed by Ma, one of the key partners. His MO is to set the general direction for the project, which is then interpreted by the team and presented to him in the form of practical concepts for implementation. Ma then studies and corrects these concepts.
During my first day at MAD I was told that work there starts at 9:30am, so that was the time I arrived at the office every day. On average, employees got to the office between 10 and 11 in the morning. At 12:30 pm we had a company lunch. Each day aunt Ai steam cooked rice for us, and we could get various fillings from a large table downstairs. Near the office, we had two small restaurants with local cuisine where we could get a company-paid dinner. We were also constantly fed snacks during the day. For instance, during the Duanwu Festival we were offered zongzi, bamboo-wrapped rice snacks, so that foreigners, who constitute the majority of MAD staff, got better acquainted with the local culture.
It was a choice between eating there as much as we can for free and going someplace else, as paid food got dull rather fast. The whole thing was organised in a way to keep us inside the office, or at least in its vicinity. The quality of food was questionable: during my daily commute I walked through the slums and watched one of the café owners lay out her vegetables right next to a puddle trickling from a nearby motorcycle workshop.
The studio had a cozy yard where we could play badminton or footbag, and a ping pong table on the first floor. In my mind the sound of a ping pong bouncing is still associated with mealtimes. Closer to the evening you were free to leave the office: there was no pressure as everybody knew what and when they had to do. We had a great time after 7 pm, when the big bosses left the office and the work process got less formal. Past 10 pm was the most relaxing time to work.
I think a lot of people burned out working for MAD, because MAD treats you as some sort of raw material that can be processed, squeezed out and left to fend for yourself afterwards. That’s normal though, as in exchange for being processed the ‘material’ acquires unique experience, resilience and new skills. In my opinion, only working to one’s limit can bring the best results. At MAD, they sometimes give identical tasks to two same-level employees. That’s when competition gets real. Once we were having a farewell dinner for other departing interns at a local cuisine restaurant. I knew that one of the girls was working on the same task as me. The dinner was going smoothly until 10 in the evening, when people started to leave to get back to the office and get some work done. Once we left the hutong (a medieval Chinese housing layout, usually represented by four adjacent buildings forming a perimeter around an inner yard – Strelka), I thought that I should check whether the other girl will go back to the office or not. I couldn’t allow her to finish the project before I did. So I walked the parallel road, following her through the unlit Beijing streets. As soon as I noticed her taking a turn to a street different from the one she lived on, I sped up behind her and we both arrived at the office at 11 pm Friday night to finish the project. That was extremely difficult, but I’m proud I made it through. I think we both understood that we were learning from each other back there.
City environment and everyday life
It seems like Beijing never sleeps. You can be walking home at night and barely recognise your neighbourhood: a local shop got a new façade, a new front sign, and it’s not even a shop anymore, it’s now a café.
The internship compensation was enough to cover 70% of my rent. Later I realised that I could get cheaper accommodation. If you’re browsing a website with an English version which offers accommodation at tourist locations popular with English-speaking expatriates, you’re definitely not looking at the cheapest option. Try asking acquaintances who have Chinese friends. That is how I stumbled upon a place in a historic hutong district. We got lucky: the place was an old one-storey house owned by a Japanese man, who revamped the building and fitted one of the rooms with tatami (mats used as a flooring material in Japan, traditionally woven from soft rush and filled with rice straw, today often replaced with synthetic foam – Strelka). Our washing machine was in the yard, locked behind a wooden door. The neighbours were nice to us: sometimes they helped us hang our clothes out to dry. I thanked them with Russian chocolates.
Living in Beijing is no easy experience. It’s very hot in the summer, and constant smog makes it hard to breathe and forces you to wear a mask. At the office we had air cleaners, so it was bearable inside as long as windows stayed closed. Everyone had an app where you could keep a track on current air pollution level. That was a bit scary, and I was gasping for air from time to time. I learned to value each breath and appreciate my homeland. Moscow’s air is actually really great.
The winter in Beijing is very cold. To offset the lack of central heating, I wore several layers of clothes at a time. Yet the cold arrived together with the northern winds that also brought a respite from the smog. The bad environment took a toll on water and food quality, too. Over time I started to feel worse; I got a little better after excluding meat from my diet.
On cultural differences
First, until you learn Chinese it may look like everyone is constantly quarrelling with each other. Second, if you are a foreigner, you are considered a dimwit by default: since you are not Chinese, there is not a chance that you have proper understanding of the world like the Chinese do. The Chinese are also the most ancient nation with a long history, and that certainly entitles them to comprehend the very essence of things. Before I used to think that Russia had more in common with China than the West, but my stay there made me realise that I was just another westerner to them. Nonetheless, I found many aspects of Chinese culture relatable. When they work on the projects, they are not afraid to say: “I feel that it should be done this way”. And nobody will question why you feel that and why it should be done in that particular way. Should you say something like this in the West, and you’ll be met with a barrage of questions and demands to provide proper reasoning. Yet in the East you have intuition, and the more you get the hang of it, the purer and more accurate your work becomes. At MAD, we had mister Bao, an old man with a position that the foreign staff had trouble to identify. Mister Bao seemed to arrive every time Ma had second thoughts on how the project should proceed. Mister Bao would squint his eyes and say something like “I feel there should be a black hole”. Exactly that happened when the studio got an order to design a George Lucas museum. And everybody started devising a black hole for the museum. Mister Bao was very insistent that we introduce him to our work schedule. He also gave us lectures on Chinese culture very Wednesday during lunchtime, so that the foreigners could get a better understanding of it. His lecture on the Chinese symbol for fire is the one I remember best. Mister Bao tried to get us to understand that abstract things formed the very core of Chinese culture.
On learning Chinese
I started learning Chinese because, firstly, I realised that I was missing out on theory, which, in given circumstances, was much more important than practice. Secondly, that was my personal challenge. Throughout the year I got really bummed when I could not understand what a can I was eating out of said, or what a poster of a movie I never went to read. I decided that I should get a grant for learning Chinese at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, whatever the time investment would be. If I failed to get the grant, I would accept that as a sign that it was simply not meant to be.
I got the grant. But then I left for Moscow because SPEECH invited me. I continue to learn Chinese here – last year I passed the third level test with a great grade, 297 points out of 300. This May I plan to try and pass the fourth level, which would give me an opportunity to pursue a bachelor’s degree in China.
On MAD’s perfect intern
After this internship, I find that I am no longer scared of learning 5,000 characters: “a journey of a thousand li starts with a single step”. I experienced that first-hand: dealing with any ambitious task, whether it appears huge, complex or unsolvable, is a matter of making a first step – it is not as difficult once you started working on it. The Chinese lack the inner barrier that would prevent them from taking on large tasks. Sometimes you get scared of simply thinking of investing 10,000 hours into something. They have a completely different attitude towards time: “Yes, I am starting a process, and I will remain in the process for a while, but I know that this number is finite.” This is basically the art of war. I think adopting that attitude was ultimately the move that allowed me to stay at MAD as an employee.
Four months since I started my internship I realised that I’ll be allowed to remain an intern for a long time, yet nobody would invite me to join the team as a hired employee. I realised that internship payment was not enough. Nevertheless, I wanted to work with MAD.
In order to reach the strict head of HR, whose job was basically to send out refusals, I wrote a self-assessment letter where I described all that I achieved over the last four months. I mentioned every single project I was involved in, describing my role in each of them and stating where I succeeded and where I could have done better. That was probably the first time I ever put my foot down on something. They gave me a two-year contract; however, I left for Russia before it ended.
I think this internship will appeal to those who want to learn to stick to the deadlines, to understand how to organise your work process, to those who want to work with concepts and advanced geometry. Since my time with MAD, I have never had any problems with process organisation again. MAD is an opportunity for those who would rather work on futuristic projects than pursue detailed practice, and for those who want to test themselves in extreme conditions. As competitive person, I fit in that environment – maybe that’s why I can’t help taking part in contests. Also, Chinese culture is something else, and you simply can’t get tired of it while you’re there.