In the northern province of Heilongjiang, China, an Opera House designed by architect Ma Yansong has become an icon of a new generation of Chinese architecture. Located in the city of Harbin, the building is the centerpiece project of the Cultural Island, an ambitious masterplan that Yansong won after an international competition.
The sinuous structure emerges from the surrounding wetlands of the Songhua River and its untamed wilderness, as if it had been shaped and eroded by the province’s frigid winds, blending with the snow during the winter season. “Visitors are welcomed to experience the interior spaces as an extension of the exterior, conceptually carved by the natural elements,” Yansong says.
With a civic vocation, the project shelters an outdoor public space that continues into the spectacular lobby, where the curvaceous forms enter and give character to the rich interiors, bathed in natural light.
From here, visitors witness the grand 1,600-seat theater, a wooden construction that has the presence of a sculpture. Its Manchurian ash walls resemble an eroded piece of wood, a design that is not only visually striking but also a technical achievement that gives the opera world-class acoustic qualities. Another, more intimate theater contains a stage open to the landscape via a large window that provides a scenic backdrop for performances. There’s also an outdoor stage located at the opera’s top, which doubles as an observation platform for the city and the surrounding natural environment.
These in-between spaces, where visitors can use the building even where no events are scheduled, give this project a strong public character. “We envision Harbin Opera House as a pavilion in nature—a dramatic space that allows interior and exterior enjoyment for both ticketholders and non-ticketholders alike to engage with the building,” says Yansong, reinforcing that the Cultural Island is not just a destination, but an extension of the city.
David Basulto is the founder and editor-in-chief of ArchDaily.