Yingxuan Ma: Combining heritage and innovation for conceptual architectural design.

by Eduardo Mautner
22 October 2022

"Sometimes you got to move out to kind of see things clear."

Yingxuan Ma

BArch + BFA; Architecture
Class of 2025


Sam is a multimedia architect and designer who is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree on Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Yingxuan was born in China and lived in Canada during his teenage years, where he studied Computer Science at the University of Toronto for two years before transferring to RISD. His work stretches from highly conceptual visualizations to realistic architectural projects. Sam worked for Harvard CamLab over the summer of 2022 and was a 3D printing monitor at the Brown University Design Work Shop in 2021.

EM: All right, so first question, Sam: what's your biggest creativity-related interest at the moment?

YM: I think my biggest creativity interest right now is a club that I have, and I always wanted to think outside of the box. So, I know that I have some skill set and design thinking in architecture, but I kind of want to expand that out. So, I've been trying to learn Blender and other softwares and trying to use that stuff to expand my creativity. If you ask me what's my creative mind outside of school, I think right now it's more like digital media.

EM: So, would you say that, in a way, architecture is not exclusive to architecture?

YM: In a way, I think 80%of my time right now is architecture, and I feel like if I look outside of architecture, I'll find more inspiration. Sometimes you got to move out to kind of see things clear.

EM: Nice. Speaking of inspiration - this is actually the second question - where do you get inspiration? Is there any specific artist or designer?

YM: I think my inspiration comes a lot from nature and friends and conversations. I had an internship this summer, and I found a really good mentor. He's like a team leader, so sometimes when I have questions and stuff, I talk to him and have a conversation that is pretty long. I talk to him as a friend and as a student. It could be like an hour or 2 hours. He all gave me some really good articles and references for me to think and read about.

EM: Do you feel like your personal backrgound influences your work?

YM: My personal background, I think for sure. My grandpa is a physicist. Scientist. And his father is a translator. In the World War, he's translated from German to English to Chinese. For people to communicate at that time, it was pretty hard. And he's Christian. He graduated from the earliest Christian school, like 100 years ago, and then that's why my grandfather's a Christian. But then my mom, when we moved to Canada, she developed a strong belief in Buddhism, so I think that also affects me between the Western religion and also the Buddhist religion. And I think if I give an example of how my background influences my work, I think of the Three Doors, which is really a conversation that was related to, I think, confusion, and Buddhism, and idea that life is suffering. But through the suffering, how do you forgive yourself? And how do you move forward and find happiness within those sufferings? So I think these ideas and Chinese culture are really embedded in my thinking. I can't say I wanted to be outside of that. I think I have to really understand myself and try to express myself. I don't know if that makes sense.

EM: No, it does! Good insight. Now, what would you say is your biggest challenge in the design process?

YM: My biggest challenge in the design process? To make an example in school, I'm starting to find this pattern when my professors critique my work: they really like my concept of thinking. I think I'm a person who can really get a lot of ideas quickly, and so by project, I can have like, six or seven ideas at the same time. But I'm also overwhelmed. I don't know which one to pick, and I don't know how to kind of get rid of things and focus on one part. So I think last semester, my biggest challenge is that I’d have kind of two ideas in my brain, and then it was like at the last month, I kind of wanted to shift to only one focus. That's why I lost a lot of time, like, searching around my ideas. And then because I started architecture, this process of doing models and stuff can take a long time. I need to manage my time. I don't have time to finish a really good project within a month. So I just basically don't live in the moment because I have so many ideas. Yeah.

EM: If only we had infinite time to work on every single idea. This is a very blue sky question: what are your predictions for art and design in the next ten years?

YM: In the next ten years?

EM: Yeah, like, over the next ten years.

YM: I'm just going to say this in my perspective, because I don't really know a lot about Industrial Design and topics outside of my major, but this also can apply to all designers because we're all in this in a way. I think our curriculum is focusing on craftsmanship, the things that, like, 30 years ago were already being taught the same way. Obviously, I think the concept that we are learning is really precious because most of all our professors are older, and what they teach us is very universal design. But I think for us, before we graduate from RISD, we all know that we need to have good portfolios to show the world. But then what really makes a difference for us, I think, is you got to really understand what you really like. It's not about the school giving you projects and we do it. It's more about how can I use myself to be fully embedded in my projects. How do I see myself in those designs?

EM: Do you feel like design in general will become more valuable in an independent way? Like people putting themselves on the concepts of their work? 

YM: Yeah, but I'm trying to say this in a very easy way because in reality it's really hard, especially when you go into big designer firms, where you don't really exist.

EM: Yeah, like you don't really have a say.

YM: And especially for architecture, the more I learned about it, I kind of realized that I don't really want to be an architect anymore. What I mean by architect is traditional architecture. I wanted to know more like other design majors from apparel, from ID, from furniture. I think in the future, designers are going to merge into something really interdisciplinary and comprehensive. We're not just specifically designing for one aspect of design, especially the archetype. We're not just on design for Architecture and Industrial Design. And I feel like we can merge a lot of things together and collaborate with a lot of designers, I think, to form a new era.

EM: Just feel like the different areas of design will merge into each other. 

YM: I feel like it's going to become more comprehensive. Yeah. 

EM: What exactly do you mean by comprehensive? 

YM: I was working on this activity for my club and there's this really interesting student called Joanne and she's from Textiles. She works in the MIT lab and she's doing a fabrication that when you pump air into it, the form is changed because each string can be pumped. So when there's this weaving texture, the whole structure becomes very interesting. Well, and I think that can be really related to architecture in the future. So that's what I mean by comprehensive. We have to understand other people's perspectives.

EM: Yeah.

YM: And there's also this virtual world coming in. It is the future. I talked to people about why they think architecture is shifting, because before, like five years ago, the virtual world was not that popular, and right now it's getting more and more popular because of the technological development. We have better tools to use. But architecture is still taught in a traditional way because we rely on this need of physical models. We need sections and elevations to show the client how things work. But what the new designers see is that we actually don't need physical models and we don't need those traditional drawings like sections or plans to show a client. If you have a 3Dmodel and we all put on our VR goggles, we can actually be in the space and build a space; not just look at it.

EM: So it's going to be a more immersive spatial experience. 

YM: Yeah. And for example, if we all have goggles and augmented reality, we can all sit here and have a hologram model on the table and we can all look at it, critique it without doing so much time and wasting so much material on model making.

EM: Good point. Let's move to the last question. How would you define your art and design philosophy? 

YM: I feel like design, in a way, was trying to find ways to express myself. So I think before I went to RISD, before I learned design, it was more about the work that I do. It was more about self-expression, about what I see in the world, about why I wanted to show people about my world, about my point of view. But as I started learning architecture and design, I think my ego kind of died out in a way, and I don't really feel like my work is fully about self-expression anymore. It's more about how oneself adapts to the world. Because I know myself as a designer, I don't have the ability to force the world to change in a certain way that I see that I wanted it to change. So, I want to use the pattern or the stuff that the world gives me. And I try to formulate something in the gaps or fill the gaps.

So, this urban planning issue, for example, there's more rich people coming in, and they're going to take all the houses for the middle-class people because the housing capacity is the same. And then the middle-income people are going to take all the houses for the lower income, and the lower income is just going to become homeless. That's basically what happened in Manhattan. And the problem in Providence is that there's a lot of policy for lower income people, so high income people can buy anything. Well, they have a comfortable life, and the most suffering comes from the middle-income population. I know that I can't change the fact that this is happening. I might just have to use this vision to learn about the world and how it structures itself, to build stuff that will help this bad cycle change. But it's really not about me expressing myself. It's about trying to make the world better.

Words from Ma:

Sam had some tough years when he was a computer engineering student in University of Toronto. When Sam asked his friend what the friend liked about computer engineering, the friend told him that, “I found beauty in the realms of logic and the language of coding”, Sam realized that he had to quit. Sam wants to seek the beauty of the world, as he tried really hard in computer language. He just can’t find the Shakespeare in that.

Sam loved math and physics in high school equally in art and painting. He is inspired by what Richard Feynman said, all perspectives that we learnt are giving beauty to our eyes, not subtracting.

As Sam painfully quit his engineering career with depression, he made an installation piece that he is still proud of till this day. The piece is called The Cycle of Three Doors. It is a contemplation of life for Sam to rethink his future. At age of 20, he never felt so lost in his whole life. Everything is uncertain, but he uses the doors to assure himself that great things will come as long as he sets foot on this journey. And he knows that it will be more and more difficult as life goes on.

Now, Sam is a Junior in RISD with passion and great hope that he will find beauty and his heart in the pursuit of Architecture design and art.

Back to top