Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Zaha Hadid sings Guangzhou Opera House

Visit without Spotlights

Two years after opening, with plenty of accolades on the design and unanimous criticisms on the workmanship, I went to Guangzhou to visit the opera house with relative cool head.  The public attention has gone but the review with less hype would only do justice to all.

A comforting reassurance to able architects, I have had the experience most of them would love to hear - that is the concept of the project is manifest visually before the eye through its architecture. The subversive thought of unreadable architectural concepts in most buildings does not apply in this occasion.

To be fair with Zaha Hadid’s efforts, the above observation is pure incidental.  I have never read any critique on this project prior to the visit.  At the same time, I must declare to be a non-believer of deconstruction architecture and even after writing this article, I am not a particular fan of her.   

Aerial view with an array of landmarks and 
the Pearl River bank towards the south.

A Visual Concept

According to its architect, the opera house had its inspiration from the Pearl River, which is the source of drinking water and a host of activities for the inhabitants of Guangzhou.  With the biomorphic forms akin to two giant pebbles drifting ashore along its bank, the two expressive looking performance venues incite comparison with scholar rocks, which are much adored by the locals.

Almost imprinted in the psyche, the appreciation of 
unusually shaped rocks in China, or suiseki 
in Japan, has a long tradition in the Orient. 
(photo www.bonsaitonight.com)

From top to bottom: Level One, Level Two, High level plan 
and Section through the grand auditorium. 
(drawings www.zaha-hadid.com)

Formalistic layout of the new Guangzhou CBD centred along 
the grand boulevard that is terminated with 
two iconic buildings towards the south.
(photo www.lifeofguangzhou.com)

Given that the Guangdong Museum, strategically located with the opera house as a pair of new cultural icons perpendicular to the central axis, has the same plateau-cum-main building arrangement.  It can only be deduced that the setting was a predetermined criterion for both competition briefs.  All said, the analogy of prized stones rested above a river bank is conceptually viable as an installation.  In the eyes of the Cantonese, it easily make image associations pertinent to the school of Lingnan still life wash paintings.

Luxembourg Opera House in 1997.  Though not materialized,
 it might have laid foundation for the more mature 
Guangzhou project in 2003-2010.
(images www.ademirvolic.com)

Nudging Tensions

Daunting to view at first instance with the low lying concrete masses, the opera house is surprisingly easy to orientate and navigate.  As the site faces south and the main approach comes from the north, Hadid did a skillful job of channeling pedestrians either from east and west via underpasses, steps or ramps.  People are easily directed to the foyers where the solid stone shells are punctuated with irregular stripes of glazing and entrances.

The two performance buildings of grey and white, their volumes reflecting the programme of housing a formal auditorium of opera and small scaled experimental theatre, are raised on a platform of circulation routes, entrance foyers and ponds.  The two “pebbles” create interesting solid and void relationship, the resultant tension are compelling.  Apart from the main cast, other public facilities especially the catering venues and exhibition space are though too dispersed and not strategically located.

A photographer may find it hard to shoot 
the Guangzhou Opera House.  The building has one of 
the most unusual building expressions to be captured but 
the result seems to be far from desirable.

Disconcerted neighbours

On another sour note, the relative tight plot for a grand project of this scale has one particular drawback – the amoebic buildings with interesting nooks and crannies are blocked by the high plateau ground floor at certain angles.  Worse still, the nearby tall buildings incongruously standing among themselves, are in complete discordance with it.  Their close proximity leads to the unspeakable thought that the opera house might be better built somewhere else. 

Glimmering Inside

Interiors of two performance buildings provide fluid flow of spaces that are breathtaking but somehow expected of.

Public galleries with triangular shaped fenestrations 
cast different shades of light and 
darkness depending on the time of day. 

Perhaps due to the triangulated structure that captivates 
the eye, the glazing does not induce view out of the building envelope.  It generates certain introverted countenance. 

In stark contrast to the monochromatic exterior, the grand theatre is painted with gold on walls and ceilings.  Together with the velvety red chairs, they suggest that the architect is determined to appease local tastes.  It is a pleasant encouragement to find a bold enough architect like Hadid to consciously apply colour to architecture, inside or out.  While the public foyers are fragmentary and angular, the voluminous auditorium is fluid and cavorting with streamlined plastering.

Views of the Grand Theatre

The scaled walls, apart from fulfilling acoustic needs, reinforce the idea of triangulation on the structure.  The interior, as remarked by the tour guide, further hints at the presence of the carcass of a giant fish.  The metaphors of pebbles, fish scales and carcass can be tied together under the tradition of the maritime theme.  Both methodologically and thematically speaking, this radical stream of architecture, no matter how progressive it appears, cannot shake away inherently from the language of Modern Movement.

Views of the Rehearsal Room

Tokenistic design of lavatory in black and white that 
do not aspire to much quality.

Worse still is this door design that would be 
better off with conventional detailing.

Awkward-looking stonework at front corner.  It is the 
setting-out by the designers not the resulting 
workmanship that calls for improvement.

Analyzing Charges

The construction quality of this project is laden with criticism, in my understanding, many of which are unjustified against the contractors.  With a highly irregular shape on the exteriors, the segmentation of cladding into triangular pieces did not resolve properly all the geometrical surfaces of the enclosures.  It is often noticed at pointed protrusions and awkward indentations that the stone cladding patterns seem to stray.  This has to do more with the setting-out by the design team rather than the workmen. 

Restaurant spaces in the form of paddy fields 
according to the designers.

There was apparently a misunderstood intent between the architect and the client.  A restaurant space outside theatre could be a success in other projects.  However with performance not scheduled on a daily basis, any dining facility high above in the building would be a challenge to customers.  The purpose design space has thus been left vacant since the building was open in 2010.

Black box theatre interior is unassumingly lacking in design and size compared with other high-profiled interior spaces.

Interesting space and light sources that are not 
used to the fullest.

There is the creeping issue of maintenance that seems to be overlooked by the designers such as the replacement of defunct LED lights at the high ceiling of the grand theatre, broken exterior glazing at unreachable surface and water seepage with no control of where water might flow.

Unacceptably bad craftsmanship and installations that 
the three-party-relationship of architect, 
contractors and client must share criticism.

Of course there are the badly applied sealant joints, haphazard cladding and missing finishes at odd corners that could have been prevented by the contractors.  The fledgling property management of this building and those in other parts of China, all the more, exacerbates its inadequacies especially related to the venues’ unique features and construction technology.

Artworks at a Glance

No doubt the best artwork at the opera house.   “Dreams of the White Collars” (白領之夢) by Ma Han (馬晗) uses white shirts to ignite both thoughts and sensations.  It is fragile and temporal, two values that interact well with the triangulated curtain wall of the background. 

We were told during the architectural tour that 
the origins of some artworks from overseas could not be traced.  Besides having no titles and attributions, 
some of them are real oddities in the context.

Deconstructing Architecture

The exhibition of “Deconstructivist Architecture” at MoMA, 1988 marked the beginning of massive attention from students, architects and the public on the new expressions.
(images www.ahrachodesign.com)

Time has proven itself that the movement of Deconstruction Architecture has crumbled; and its protagonism is an event of the past.  The theoretical basis of semiotic analysis under the philosophy of Deconstruction applied to architecture has demonstrated to be unsustainable.  The operators of the two disciplines can hardly be transcribed.  If it was a disapproval against Post-Modern Classicism of the 1980s, the exercise has succeeded in making a stance and the pastiche architectural movement had itself run out of steam.  If it was a reaction against the modernist dogmas like functionalism and other dead-end parameters, the revolt sparked many debates.

When looking at Deconstruction under a condensed time span, it may be better merited as an architectural development process rather than an end in itself.  The loosely connected characteristics of its architects in play of fragmentation, distortion and controlled chaos defy tradition for the sake of anti-tradition.  Their disdain for form-making only results in another version of form-making.

With projects consuming much more than others, these architects do not aspire to lofty ideals or clear goals.  Since the budgets of such buildings are many times their conventional counterparts, they are often seen as elitist.  For public buildings including the Guangzhou Opera House, these high-profiled developments might help serve social and political intents by means of glorifying the ruling regimes.

In my opinion, the Guangzhou Opera House as a stand-alone piece of work is undoubtedly a success.  It has the lyrical simplicity and abstraction other heavily contrived works under the name of deconstruction do not possess.  However, beauty is not the only virtue, we do not live in an era of isolated values.  Far from this case, architecture today are often exploited to serve social, economic and even political ends, none more so than these deconstruction buildings.  The glamorous architectural profession has been developed into an operation of money-can-buy existence.  Most of these high-profile buildings are relegated as consumables and its architects as mere tools.

哈廸唱和廣州大劇院  〈中文摘要〉


啓用已兩年的大劇院聚焦了以下標準反應:一,對哈廸(Zaha Hadid)的設計高度讚譽、二,對施工質素強烈評擊。我不是哈廸的追隨者,亦非傾慕於解構建築。沒有這些包袱,我抱着平常心檢視這建築。









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