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Guangzhou, China – A rock and a high place: British architects complete major projects in China’s third city

Guangzhou Opera House testifies to the city’s huge cultural ambitions

As Wilkinson Eyre’s International Finance Centre nears completion, taking Guangzhou’s skyline to new and dizzying heights, Zaha Hadid’s newly minted Guangzhou Opera House deploys an altogether different architectural strategy, hunkering down to anchor an ambitious programme of cultural development in China’s rapidly expanding third city.

As part of the masterplan for the city’s Zhujiang New Town, both projects sit to the west of a linear park that runs perpendicular to Pearl River. Largely pedestrianised and built above a six-lane road and subway system, the park creates an impressive north/south axis that cuts through Guangzhou’s prosperous central business district. Readers may recall images of two Wilkinson Eyre towers, as the firm was originally asked to consider a twin tower masterplan that would frame the new civic axis, but eventually the second tower was taken on by another developer that has since commissioned an alternative, taller design by KPF, now on site.

For the time being, however, this striking 103-storey building, characterised by its rounded triangular plan, giant order diagrid structure (spanning up to 12 floors), with offices on levels 1 to 63, a Four Seasons luxury hotel between 64 to 99 (due to open later this year), and an observation deck on levels 100 and 101, will stand as the city’s tallest building at 440m. (In a slightly nationalist tub-thumping aside, it’s also the tallest structure anywhere in the world to be designed by a British architect.)

Back at ground level, the terrain hugging Hadid’s opera house is less than the equivalent of ten storeys, its high point set by the fly tower that rises stealthily within the building’s black shroud. Typical of many Hadid buildings, space in and around the opera house is defined by horizontal trajectories that lead visitors and passers-by through a series of dynamic internal foyers and external rills. Conceived as two elegantly eroded pebbles notionally picked from the nearby river and placed on the new terrain, geological analogies figure prominently in the building’s narrative.

Originally intended to be expressed in concrete and metal, the region’s ready supply of granite soon became the preferred choice of material, serving not only to crystalise the architect’s concept, but also bringing real gravitas and substance to the building’s rock-like forms. Sourced from the province of Sichuan, black and white granites were selected to differentiate the opera house’s two venues and prevent the two forms melding into one.

Architect Simon Yu, the project leader who has worked on the building since the 2003 competition victory, is keen to assert the building’s civic function, not only in terms of the connections it provides across the site, but also in relation to the social boundaries that this place seeks to break down. ‘Like anywhere,’ he says, ‘Opera can be a very exclusive activity, but anyone can come to this place; anyone from a skateboarder to an opera goer.’ According to Yu, despite the fact that much of the infrastructure is still incomplete, the area is already thriving with people who want to make the most of free access to the building’s dramatically contorted spaces.

The opera house has two venues, one in each boulder. The larger black granite boulder contains a 1,800-seat grand theatre, while the white granite of the smaller element (set as a rainscreen above a proprietary standing seam roof) envelops a 400-seat multipurpose hall described by Yu as a more commercial venue that attracts a wider range of performances and audiences. Since its soft opening and inaugural performance in May last year, the use of the main venue has been sporadic, as it takes time for new venues to become established on the international touring circuit. With the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra now on the schedule, however, Yu is confident that the Guangzhou Opera House will soon begin to attract some of the world’s most prestigious companies.

To this end, the main auditorium had to be world class and was carefully tuned to achieve a target reverberation time of 1.6 seconds. Typical of much of Hadid’s architecture, nothing about this specialised design process was conventional, and therefore consultant engineers were pushed to explore the limits of their expertise. As explained by Yu, acoustic engineering more typically relies on the application of composite materials, often layered to offer differing ranges of acoustic absorbency, with hard materials that promote early reflections and softer ones that reduce boom.

In this instance, however, the architect wanted theauditorium to be as seamless as the building’s exterior, and proposed a cave-like auditorium defined a scintillating 4,000m2 golden lining. To accommodate this, sound would need to be channelled through the space in a much more specific way, which adds an unusual dimension of necessity to Hadid’s signature use of sculptural form. Working with Harold Marshall of Melbourne-based firm Marshall Day Acoustics, the shape of the space was modelled over 150 times to ensure that there would be the perfect relationship between space and sound. When finally resolved, glass reinforced gypsum was used to achieve the seamless surface, with 70 per cent of the panels requiring unique moulds, made in wax to avoid unnecessary waste.

The foyers also presented an acoustic challenge with facetted panels of glass potentially producing too many echoes when full of chattering visitors. To counter this, perforated metal was used to cloak the expressed steelwork, offering just enough absorbency in an otherwise empty and hard space.

Linked by entrance foyers, lounges and shared facilities such as rehearsal rooms, the terrain on which the boulders sit contains a number of independent of retail units, yet to be occupied. Yu believes that these spaces, when finally let, will help further establish Guangzhou Opera House as an important public destination.

Around 200 events are due to be staged each year at the opera house. The complex was inaugurated by a performance of Puccini’s Turandot, the classic ‘Chinese’ opera formerly banned for many years by the ruling communist government.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Victor Ochoa

    "Originally intended to be expressed in concrete and metal, the region’s ready supply of granite soon became the preferred choice of material, (...)."
    China is still a country where exposed concrete seems officially abhorred. No matter how famous the architect may be, it is almost impossible, to find a building done with Le Corbusier or Tadao Ando's material of choice. So we have, yet again, another granite cladded building. Nothing wrong with that except we are to miss a good opportunity for exposed concrete to be liked in China. Now, the stone is not even from local (Guangdong) quarries but from relative far Sichuan.

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