Beijing Culture: Grand National Theater
The Egg is Finally Hatched: An Overview of Beijing's Grand Theater
Seven years after construction began on a site close to Tiananmen Square, work on Beijing's US$420 million Grand Theatre is just about complete.
Persistently dogged by delays, the "Eggshell," as it has been dubbed by many, is scheduled to host its first live performance before the end of the year.
Ever since French architect Paul Andreu's plans emerged for the futuristic building in the heart of China's ancient capital, the project has been mired in financial and aesthetic controversy.
Back in the late nineties the design was so radical, in fact, that it took four years of deliberation among the country's policy makers before the foundations could even be laid. Construction started in April 2000, but was suspended almost immediately as opposition to the project mounted in academic, engineering and architectural circles.
The enormous glass and titanium structure, covering nearly 150,000 square meters, has been listed among the top 10 architectural designs by US-based journal Business Week for its energy-saving and environmentally friendly design. However, many Beijingers have christened the complex an "alien egg," or even a "giant turd," thoughtlessly deposited opposite the Forbidden City, one of China's architectural marvels and the country's most revered landmark.
Professor Zhou Rong of Tsinghua University's architecture and design school has commented that it was "unwise" to build such a large-scale theatre in the centre of Beijing. "It looks like something extra-terrestrial," he said in a recent interview. It goes against all the conventions of Chinese architecture."
Aside from concerns about location and appearance, and how the glass dome and large moat surrounding it will stand up to the wear and tear of Beijing's harsh aerial environment, the building has also been lampooned for its questionable feng shui. The entrance, through a glass tunnel beneath the moat, is more evocative of a traditional tomb than an opera house.
The Chinese government has spent a fortune giving Beijing a citywide makeover prior to the Olympics, constructing a whole series of high profile buildings designed by foreign "starchitects". This has raised concerns among Chinese architects and locals that Beijing has become a playground for overseas building designers to indulge their fantasies on incongruous and overly expensive projects.
Although the original budget for the theatre was set at RMB 2.68 billion (around US$325 million), the final bill is likely to be around $100 million more than anticipated. Back in 2005 a roofing manufacturer involved in the project had to sue four construction firms for over 36 million RMB (US$4.35 million) in unpaid bills, which further disrupted construction.
Paul Andreu is best known for designing a host of airports across the globe, including Shanghai's high-tech Pudong International Airport. The partial collapse of an Andreu-designed terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport in 2004, which resulted in the death of two Chinese tourists, reinforced local opposition to the theatre, despite assurances by the French architect that is totally safe.
The Grand Theatre is not alone in its struggle to endear itself to the Chinese people. Its Olympic counterparts - the National Stadium (the "Bird's Nest") and the National Aquatics Centre (the "Water Cube") - have also attracted their fair share of criticism. Although admired by many for their unconventional design, traditionalists have taken issue with their high cost and distinctly un-Chinese appearance.
Visitors to the Grand Theater will first enter the Olive Hall, seven meters below Chang'an Avenue, which offers views of the three main theater venues - the Opera House, Concert Hall and Theater House. A grand total of 54 elevators and 36 escalators are on hand to convey audiences to the second and third floors of the massive building.
The Opera House, designed for large-scale operas and dance performances, is the most dramatic space within the theater. With nearly 2400 seats and configured for a 1.6-second reverberation time, the walls of metallic meshwork are designed to achieve the perfect combination of acoustics and aesthetics. "Even the sound made by tearing a piece of paper on stage can be heard everywhere in the house," explains the Theater spokesman.
The Concert Hall, outfitted in elegant white, seats just over 2,000, and will function as a performance hall for large symphonies and national music exhibitions. The center stage is lower than the auditorium, with 180 seats behind it to be used for choruses. As with the Opera House, the beautifully decorated ceiling is designed to enhance sound transmission, including notes from China's largest pipe organ with over 6,500 pipes.
With just over 1,000 seats, the Theater House will host both contemporary and historical stage plays, and Chinese silk wallpaper enhances the traditional atmosphere. In addition to body language and voice, the subtle facial expressions of Chinese actors convey much information, so the design of the Theater House allows audiences to sit no more than 22 meters away from the curtain line.
Beginning at the end of September with China's ballet classic "The Red Detachment of Women," more than 20 test performances of opera, drama and ballet will be staged at the theater before the first formal performance is shown at the end of December.