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Harbin Opera House in China by MAD Architects

Bursting forth from its wetland setting, MAD’s incongruous Harbin Opera House and urban park belie the exquisite spaces within

The local people thought they were getting an amusement park, the building’s naked steel skeleton reminiscent of rollercoaster rides. ‘We’ve dropped an alien in Harbin,’ smiles MAD principal partner Dang Qun.

We are in the north-east of China, on a small island on the northern bank of the Songhua River, an oasis of green at the heart of the country’s eighth most populous city. Not that long ago, Harbin was nothing more than a Russian-built outpost of the Trans-Siberian line. Today, judging by the number of cranes and tower blocks under construction, the city is still very much in the making. The transport network is only just catching up, and its expansion will provide MAD’s newly completed opera house with its very own underground station.

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Location plan

Due to the rapid pace of urbanisation in the country, China finds itself faced with numerous citified settlements actually lacking the essential characteristics of true cities. Once populated and supplied with basic infrastructure, the government’s response was straightforward: a city must have culture, so a series of competitions were launched calling architects to design gargantuan complexes including, all at once, an opera house, a museum, a library and a cultural centre.

Harbin’s turn came, and in February 2010, MAD won the Cultural Island competition. Conscious of this ill-conceived idea - that the sudden injection of a large cultural nucleus could radically transform even the most monotonous accretion of residential tower blocks - the architects stripped the programme down. Their winning proposal concentrates on the opera house and an urban park, arguing that the uniqueness of the wetland site should be preserved rather than crowded with a disparate set of programmes housed in too many distinct built elements.

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Floor plans - click to expand

The site was the obvious starting point for MAD, who wanted the building to sit in continuation of the landscape’s topography, as if emerging out of it. The opera house is complemented by a small ticket office and supported by an annexe building to house a restaurant, hotel and exhibition space. In the middle of the plan lies an artificial lake. As the slope of the first building approaches the ground, the continuous surface becomes a public piazza, extends into a bridge over the water and rises back up to shape the second built structure, in an attempt to form a cohesive whole. In the surrounding wetlands, light structures provide walkways and platforms for visitors and fishermen alike. This 1.8 km2 parkland is already well used by citizens for taking walks, having picnics and flying kites.

If the architects understood the importance of preserving the wetlands as an island of green between the old and new city, the opera house itself feels like it just landed there by mistake. Dang says they feel their work must stand in opposition to the spate of homogeneous apartment buildings and their duplicates germinating everywhere. Certainly, there is a deliberate willingness to create a surreal setting here. The piazza is elevated above the ground level, disconnecting it from the surrounding nature. No trees are planted on it, only lampposts. The architects pushed practical elements, such as lorry access and loading bays, out to the sides and underneath the building in order to liberate the ground, leaving pedestrians standing in a barren artificial landscape.

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Sections - click to expand

Ma Yansong, founder of MAD, confesses his favourite render is of the scheme in Harbin’s harsh winter, which gives the project the appearance of a snow dune, blending the artificial with the natural. When the entire city is covered in a white blanket of snow, no doubt the scheme will dissolve into its surroundings. And conveniently, Harbin is reputed for annually hosting the world’s largest Ice and Snow Festival because, being so close to the Russian border - a few hundred kilometres, but we are talking at the scale of China - winter can last as long as half a year.

‘The interiors of Harbin Opera House constitute the real delicacy of the scheme’

Approaching the building’s carapace, slight bumps are visible on its surface, reminiscent of the raggedness of reptile skin. The external aluminium cladding is layered to make the lower row of panels overlap with the row immediately above it. Tucking the panels in prevents the cast of any horizontal shadow onto the building’s skin and emphasises the undulating, icy mountain look. Two cuts interrupt the larger volume, one reserved for staff and the other, open to the general public, enabling people to climb all the way to the top. At 35m above ground, the terrace offers panoramic views of Harbin.

It used to be fairly common for architects in China to supply the exterior shell of the building and hand over the fit-out to contractors, but they are now much more likely to take ownership of projects as a whole. In fact, the interiors of Harbin Opera House constitute the real delicacy of the scheme. The project’s internal spaces are unexpectedly warm and sensitive. In the lobby, flooded with light both from the side windows and the triangulated glazing overhead, timber wraps the large auditorium and staircases in an exquisitely sculpted conformation.

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Section detail - click to expand

Imposing yet elegant, the timber composition stands at the heart of the larger volume, coming down in torsion before reaching the ground. The curves are soft yet structured, articulating a movement of their own. Wood in all forms - solid, panel and veneer - is brought together, inducing a crafted touch to an environment exported straight out of 3D modelling software and brought into the world via digital fabrication. The architects were faced, however, with the inescapable reality that the human hand was a much more reliable tool for this job. Some 50 craftsmen came from Guangzhou and were on site for four months, cutting and hammering the wooden strips in.

A timber interior is also found inside the main auditorium, improving acoustics and elegantly concealing technical equipment in its folds. The stage proves highly versatile, capable of transforming to accommodate requirements for any kind of performance, from Western opera to traditional Chinese theatre and modern drama. Able to welcome an audience of 1,600, the sitting area is divided into a series of smaller booths to create a more intimate experience. At the very back, a small window can be opened to let natural light in, an unusual characteristic for such a space.

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Expanded section - click to expand

Light is also a potential actor in the small auditorium, with a seating capacity of 400 people, where the back wall of the stage is glazed offering a panoramic view of the landscape, bringing the surroundings in, and encouraging stage designers to play with the boundary between the two environments. Initially, MAD wanted the glass panel to fully open out. While this was not particularly difficult at a technical level, it would have required the help of a specialised foreign firm, which the budget did not allow for - the architects did not trust their Chinese counterparts to do the job.

MAD want to be provocative and challenge the language of architecture used in their country, promulgating the integration of art, culture and landscape. They feel that until now, China has been seeing and taking from other places, rather than bringing something new to the table. They believe that due to the acquired freedom and sense of possibility available in China, its local architecture could prove particularly innovative and in turn, inspire beyond its national borders. Although the Chinese government has recently expressed a will to move away from the ‘bizarre’ architecture the country seemed so fond of, Ma and Dang feel strongly about the responsibility of architects to help shape society, and believe architecture should challenge perceptions and environments. Visiting the project on a Monday afternoon, one week before its inauguration, a newly wed couple was posing in front of the mountainous structure. Does an amorphous shape really broaden horizons and question the status quo?

Harbin Opera House

Architect: MAD Architects

Project directors: Ma Yansong, Dang Qun, Yosuke Hayano

Photographs: Hufton+Crow

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