Ma Yansong’s extraordinary cultural complex in the Chinese city emerges from the wetlands of the Songhua river like a coiled reptile, says Julian Worrall. And it only gets more life-like the closer you get …
The building first appears as a faint outline glimpsed through a stand of birch trees. A white, undulating form condenses out of the haze, dully gleaming in coiled repose from across the wide banks of the Songhua river, like some alien craft or gigantic reptile, complete with head, limbs and tail. Something seems to be wrong with the scale – perhaps it is the little trees planted around the base that make it loom impressively over the landscape; perhaps it is the mist that makes its volumes seem implausibly extended into a soft middle-distance. But as we get closer the illusion does not dissipate. This is big! And, as we make our final approach towards the head of the beast, the form appears to rise up, sweeping its arms around to embrace our vehicle, beckoning us down into the dark gullet of the parking garage. We have arrived at the Harbin Opera House.
The latest and most spectacular project by MAD, the Beijing-based practice founded and led by Ma Yansong, the Harbin Opera House (also known as the Harbin Cultural Centre) is the centrepiece of an ambitious new “culture park” in the city of Harbin. The complex houses a 1,600-seat Grand Theatre and a 400-seat Small Theatre. The former offers all the usual paraphernalia of fly tower, deep pit and cavernous backstage spaces for large-scale musical and theatrical performances; the latter has flexible seating for a variety of productions, from stage plays to chamber music. The container is ready; all that is needed is content.
Harbin, two hours’ flight north-east of Beijing, is the capital of Heilongjiang province, once known as Manchuria, on the frigid borderlands with Russia. Built by Russia in the fading years of the 19th century as a supply post for the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, Harbin’s character is part hard-bitten frontier town, part cosmopolitan crossroads. Its perch on the unstable arris between East and West gave it a front-row seat in the great dramas of 20th-century history. A haven for Jewish and White Russian refugees fleeing the October revolution and a hotbed of intrigue under Japanese rule, the crumbling European residues of the city’s historic core continue to imbue the copy-paste residential towers and grandiose shopping complexes of its periphery with a faint aura of exoticism. Today, however, tourists know the city for its Ice Festival and Siberian Tiger Park, entertaining displays of frontier kitsch.
A taste for the theatrical suffuses the project, even informing secondary spaces – here a black stallion inspects the administration block
The new opera house is intended to reinstate some of the city’s identity in that denatured urban periphery. The building aims to be “the city landmark that can showcase Harbin’s own DNA and cultural heritage, and northern China’s artistic character, which is strong, rugged, powerful and dynamic”, in the words of Liu Zhenbo, an official in charge of the development of Songbei, the new urban development zone in which the project sits. At the same time, he continues, the building “blends in with the surrounding beautiful natural environment, to become an organic entity that can showcase Harbin’s unique urban landscape”.
The urban strategy is an improbable but ambitious one: an opera house built amid a wetland on the northern, low-lying side of the flood-prone Songhua river. Despite new flood-control infrastructure, and substantial investment and construction by the city government since the early 2000s, the new urban district of Songbei has been dogged by sluggish demand and is known to locals as the Ghost Town. The provision of a 118-hectare wetland park and a spectacular cultural centre ratchets up official commitment a few notches – a gamble that a compelling mix of culture and nature could form a potent nucleus to invigorate Harbin’s Left Bank.
MAD won the project in early 2010 in an invited competition by stressing the landscape dimension; in order to realise this effectively, a second competition was held to select the landscape architect, with MAD as judge (noted Beijing-based landscape firm Turenscape won). For Ma, the unusual combination of urban cultural space and riparian wetland offered a chance to advance his own developing vision for linking cities with nature, an orientation that has increasingly become the primary source and frame for his design thinking. Discussing the drivers of the design concept, Ma often refers to the “powerful context” – when my impressions of the site had been of a vast, flat, largely featureless terrain, punctuated by clusters of 30-storey apartment towers.
Queried on this, Ma waxed impressionistic: “When humans go into an environment, whether artificial or natural, they feel something. That’s the reason we talk about context: people feel things – different characters, atmospheres: deserts, oceans. I’d say this place has a very strong character. On the edge of a river that is very special. It’s very wide, and if you look from the air, it’s shape is very organic. When I saw this, I thought this would be a strong pathway towards understanding this place.” I’d heard from a friend in Beijing that when Ma spoke about landscape to students, all the girls inexplicably started crying. I began to understand why.
Elaborate wooden cladding has been used in the Grand Theatre to enhance the auditorium’s acoustic performance
In Ma’s account, it is the landscape’s natural features, the patterns formed by the layered meanderings of the river, laid down over thousands of years, that inspired the building’s looping, crescent-shaped forms. Whereas for me it appears inescapably biomorphic and animate – a white dragon sitting in but not of the landscape – Ma understands the form as an extension of the landscape itself. It should differ from the landscape however, he says – it should retain a sense of scale and artificiality.
The key to this is an exterior pedestrian ramp, a fluid line sweeping up and around the building, linking the two main volumes housing the Grand and Small Theatres and providing access to a windswept roof garden with a striking view. “Without the ramp,” Ma says, “the building would become clean and without scale, a white triangle. The ramp divides the building, so it doesn’t look like a natural element, because of the black lines. It shows the scale, since that’s the ramp for people to walk on. It also shows the centre is accessible and approachable. This is different from a landmark building just for people to see. It is a building for people to experience directly.”
Attentiveness to scale and viewpoint is one of the notable subtleties of the design. As you get closer, the white aluminium panels skinning the building begin to reveal discontinuities and local variations: ripples, bumps and gills. The spiky glass roofline rises and falls, giving the appearance of bristling. Such manoeuvres bring character to what would otherwise be the smooth continuities of the mathematically defined surfaces of parametricism: a language that might be called the “Zaha continuum”.
This creaturely sense of form becomes even more vivid on the interior, in the main lobby to the Grand Theatre, which is dominated by the shell of the auditorium. A great wooden mask rises four storeys over the space, exquisitely wrought in thousands of strips of 7mm-thick Mongolian Ash, a task that apparently took a team of 50 craftsmen four months to execute. As the shell wraps around the side of the theatre, it splits and branches into a vortex of staircases that loop up between the exterior and interior shells. This ascending, serpentine void packs the most extraordinary spatial punch of the entire complex. As you move through it, timber becomes liquid; the shell appears to come alive, its visage passing through a range of expressions, from sorrow to anger to joy to contemplation. The Opera becomes operatic.
The undulating white surfaces of both interior and external surfaces of the exterior shell evoke Harbin’s winter landscape of snowdrifts
Ma’s formal and spatial manoeuvres seem driven by a sensibility far removed from the algorithmic techniques of tracing movement vectors or iterating attractors that underlie parametricism. It appears sculptural, in the old-fashioned sense of shaping matter to infuse it with life: “I don’t want to make those lines cold, mechanical or computer-generated. I want to give them a hand-crafted quality, a sense of life. But at the same time, I want to keep a certain level of abstraction.” In fact, Ma admits that many of the design iterations on the auditorium shell were aimed at avoiding a too-obvious visual association with faces.
In a building as organic as this, the finding of some resemblance to human or natural form is inevitable. However, Ma is at pains to assert that his primary objectives are experiential and atmospheric. The experiential sequence underlies the spatial decisions: “I want to bring some continuity of experience. So, when they see an organic building, people think, this works well in the landscape. When they enter, I want to bring this continuity inside. When they see the auditorium, when they sit down, they’ll still have this sense of continuity. When they go up the stairs, and then sit somewhere, they will still feel they are sitting in this theatre in a wetland, not somewhere else. So it’s important to have continuity. But at the same time, I want to bring a new experience, not a repeat. So before they enter the auditorium, I want them to be surprised, to see something new. So the wood shell has a different scale to the lobby. Then the stair is a new experience. But they all share the same language.”
Despite a remote position on the desolate northern edge of a city in an exotic fringe of his country, the formal audacity of this striking and at times extraordinary building is likely to reinforce Ma’s position as the most flamboyant of his generation of Chinese architects. For all his international visibility and commercial success, it is this glamorous, flashy quality, which in salty Beijing slang is termed gao bige (literally: “high pussy”), that has led some of the critical establishment in China to adopt a posture of bemused disdain towards MAD’s energetic experiments. Yet, beyond the formal gymnastics, it is the arguments linking landscape, urban space and Chinese traditions, explored here and in Ma’s recent book Shanshui City, that may ultimately be most significant for Ma’s elevation from the merely global to the distinctively Chinese.