Seamless flow of energy

Seamless flow of energy


And because this is China, a country that is still undergoing cultural growing pains and whose architectural monuments are mostly being built by unskilled migrant labour, the opera’s construction was racked with problems and the quality of some of it is abysmal.

Still, if you’re an architecture lover willing to find your way to the building, you probably won’t care much. Designed by Zaha Hadid, the new Guangzhou Opera House is gorgeous to look at. It is also a magnificent example of how a single building can redeem a moribund urban environment. Its fluid forms — which have been compared to a cluster of rocks in a riverbed, their surfaces eroded by the water’s currents — give sudden focus to the energy around it so that you see the whole area with fresh eyes.

The project is a vindication for Hadid. In the mid-1990s, when she was still a rising star with few buildings to her credit, she won an international competition for the design of the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales. It was a breakthrough moment. Yet the government refused to pay for her design and the project was eventually handed over to a lesser talent — an outcome that was devastating for Hadid and a blow to architectural history.

It’s hard to imagine that the Guangzhou site seemed particularly promising when she first saw it. The project stands at the edge of a vast, featureless park that is the centrepiece of the district’s master plan, about a 15-minute drive from the old city centre.

An enormous library, a kitschy masonry building intended to resemble an open book, faces it across the park to the east; a 103-storey tinted-glass tower stands directly behind it, dwarfing the few people passing by on the streets below.

But the beauty of Hadid’s design stems partly from the skill with which she knits her forms into this insipid context. Approaching from the park, visitors climb a grand staircase or follow a long ramp that angles diagonally past a small, secondary performance space before arriving at an entry plaza in front of the main hall. The hall’s contoured granite and glass form angles out over the plaza. The smaller hall, about half the size, stands like a big dark boulder slightly back and to the right.

The two structures shape a series of paths through and around the site. Visitors can slip between the halls, for instance, and down a staircase to a narrow roadway in back, or they can follow a wide concrete ramp that splinters off from this path and spirals down to a smaller outdoor plaza framed by a reflecting pool and a few shops. Other paths return you to the park or out to the main street.

For some the plazas will conjure the alienating public spaces found in de Chirico paintings and Antonioni films. And one of Hadid’s aims over the years has been to rehabilitate those kinds of empty expanses, which went out of favour in the 1970s and ‘80s. The difference is in her ability to convey a sense of bodies in motion. The design here is never static; there isn’t the oppressive sense of control found in some classical architecture, with its rigid perpendicular lines. At some points the curves of the paths create a sense of acceleration, propelling you forward; at others they create intimate pockets in which to loiter. Everywhere you turn, unexpected routes open up, so the architecture never feels manipulative.

The experience of openness and possibility continues right into the lobby, an airy, cathedral-like room backed by balconies that curve around the exterior of the 1,800-seat performance space. Light enters through a faceted window that wraps around the front of the lobby; at night there is a view of city’s twinkling skyline.

Stepping into the main hall is like entering the soft insides of an oyster. Seats are arranged in a slightly asymmetrical pattern, enveloping the stage on three sides, with undulant balconies cascading down in front of the stage. The concave ceiling is pierced by thousands of little lights, so that when the main lights dim before a performance it looks as if you’re sitting under the dome of a clear night sky.

The smaller hall, by contrast, is a 440-seat black-box space, the kind of room that can be easily reconfigured to fit the needs of performers and has become an ubiquitous annex to concert halls in recent decades. Here, though, it is surrounded by a billowing, white-plaster foyer that imbues it with a rare touch of sensuality.

But the biggest surprise is the way the various spaces connect. Escalators descend from both lobbies to a lower plaza, which will eventually be lined with a few shops and a cafe. (So far only a piano shop is open.) From there you can ascend the spiralling ramp back to the main plaza, or walk around a reflecting pool that extends toward the park. The sequence of spaces ties the opera house into the park around it, redeeming what until now was little-used space. As important, it establishes the opera house and its grounds as part of the public realm — something that belongs to everyone, not just elite opera fans.

As for the poor construction, many of the 75,000 exterior stone panels were so shoddily made that they are already being replaced. Some plasterwork in the lobbies looks as if it was done by an untrained worker who had never picked up a trowel before. (At one point someone obviously tried to cover up a random piece of pipe that sticks out of a lobby wall by slathering it in more plaster.)

But it may be worth remembering the challenges faced by many of the early Modernists, who pushed construction methods to the very limit in their quest for a new kind of architecture, but were often unable to find anyone with the tools or know-how to follow their lead. This was especially true in those countries that were the most underdeveloped — and that thus embraced modernity with a special fervor.

In some ways, China resembles Italy just after the turn of the last century or Russia in the 1920s — countries whose faith in modernity was driven, in part, by insecurities over their own relative backwardness. Seen in that light, the Guangzhou Opera House is a monument to a particular crossroads in China’s history, as well as to Hadid’s stellar career.