Compared variously with a floating pearl and a duck egg, the titanium-and-glass half-dome of the National Center for the Performing Arts has formally opened its underwater entryway. The $400 million (Rs1,576 crore) complex, a concert hall, opera house and theatre under one Space Age span, is designed to be the centre of Chinese culture, just as Tiananmen Square next door was designated China’s political centre.
The complex’s lush, dazzling interior, sophisticated acoustics and mechanical wizardry rival any hall in Europe or the US, its promoters say. Chen Ping, the center’s director, proclaimed it “a concrete example of China’s rising soft power and comprehensive national strength”. Yet the center, designed by the French architect Paul Andreu, has attracted at least as much attention for its cost overruns, safety concerns and provocative aesthetics.
Special effects: Night view of the newly-opened National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.
The center joins a list of monoliths designed by foreign architects—the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium and the cantilevered towers of China Central Television’s new headquarters among them—that have remade the Beijing skyline and projected the soaring ambitions and bulging coffers of the Communist Party leadership. Andreu’s creation joins the Shanghai Grand Theatre, designed by another Frenchman, Jean-Marie Charpentier, as one of the top performance halls in China.
That field will grow crowded, however, as other cities pour hundreds of millions of dollars into their own cultural showcases. Zaha Hadid, the London architect, is building an opera house for Guangzhou, a provincial capital. The architect Carlos Ott, a Canadian born in Uruguay, has four contracts for performance halls in smaller cities. Whether this adds up to a cultural renaissance or an edifice contest remains unclear.
Officials call the complex the largest performing arts centre in the world, twice as big as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It was designed to be conspicuous. Andreu said that he envisioned the hall as a tribute to the traditional Chinese image of heaven and earth, round above square. His bubble-like soaring glass dome encloses several performance spaces and is suspended above a shallow pool. Viewed at night, illuminated from within, it resembles a spaceship hovering over a calm lake. But on dim days when the haze and dust of Beijing cover the silvery titanium shell, the hall can look no more distinguished than an airport service hangar.
A few years ago a group of Chinese architects organized a vocal petition campaign to protest the design. They said it blended poorly with the Stalinist Great Hall of the People next door and high vermilion walls of the imperial Forbidden City across the street. Their effort received a boost in 2004 when the roof of a new terminal building at the Charles de Gaulle International Airport near Paris, which Andreu had designed, collapsed. Some critics of the design said the complex’s entryway, a subterranean glass-enclosed corridor extending 250ft under the artificial lake, posed safety risks in the event of structural problems or a terrorist attack.
The project faced stoppages and reviews, and was several years late and many tens of millions of dollars over budget. In Chinese media interviews, Andreu has spoken of the “enormous stress” surrounding construction, including the cleaning bills after dust and sandstorms buffeted the dome’s exterior. But he defended his hypermodern approach.
The dome’s inside is panelled with long spans of Brazilian mahogany, giving the expanse an unexpectedly warm feel. The floors are paved with soft white, yellow and gray marble from 22 Chinese provinces, selected so that their grains form continuous lines.
The walls of the theatre, the smallest of the performance spaces, are covered in thick padded silk, divided in strips of red, purple and tangerine. The ceiling of the cool-white concert hall consists of undulating waves of acoustic panels that resemble abstract art.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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