The Harbin Opera House by MAD Architects on the banks of river Songhua, surrounded by the wetlands on the outskirts of the city of Harbin in China is a cultural island flaunting its white fluid structures across the surrounding landscape. The enormous island of 444 acres consists of performance art theatres, overlooking the rapidly urbanizing city of Harbin with its tall skyscrapers. The island containing the Harbin Opera House is occupied by a built-up structure of 850,000 square feet.
The cultural centre consists of two theatres, underground parking spaces and exterior performance areas. MAD Architects, a firm based in Beijing founded by Ma Yansong, won the Cultural Island Competition which was conducted to decide the designers of the Opera House. The construction of the cultural complex began in 2011 and was completed by 2015.
Extension of Surrounding Landscape | MAD Architects
The sinuous design of the Harbin Opera House was inspired by the surrounding wetlands and the abutting river and was designed to be a fluid extension of its geographic context. The city has snowy terrain during winters and the pristine white cultural centre looks as if camouflaged within its site.
The design of the structure by the head architect Ma Yansong of MAD architects was derived from the idea to create a public space in contrast to the towering skyscrapers of the typical urban fabric of many cities in China. The concept was to design a cultural centre that could be pivotal in how the public spaces in the city are perceived.
The cultural island is often used by people for taking long walks, to have picnics and functions as an intended public space that Ma Yansong derived.
The Public Plaza
The Harbin Opera House consists of a large plaza at the entrance, functioning as a welcoming public space set amidst the built structures, leading up to the two theatres. The grand theatre can house 1,600 people and a smaller adjoining theatre can accommodate an audience of 400. There is also a spacious exterior performance space with an observation deck between the theatre spaces. The cultural centre has ample parking situated underground that can be accessed directly through a tunnel below the ground level.
The entire transit areas including all of the parking and vehicular circulation are directed underground at the helm of the entrance to the plaza. So visually all the users see are the surreal white shells of the built structures on the flat open space overlooking the river and the city.
Light Material Palette
The warm spacious lobby of the theatre complex in the Harbin Opera House is enclosed by curved walls made of white concrete and the entire flooring is clad in marble, the white palette seamlessly transitioning to the Manchurian Ash wood-clad sculptural staircases and balconies that lead up to the theatres.
The marble flooring is equipped with radiant heating systems to deal with the extreme cold in the region with its temperature dipping as low as -19 degrees Celsius. This keeps the spaces comfortable during long winters where the public can enjoy the amenities of the cultural centre.
Pristine Glass | MAD Architects
Seamless glass walls connect the exterior plaza with the naturally lit high-ceilinged lobby of the Harbin Opera House. A part of the roof of the fresh white lobby is composed of a lightweight diagrid structure that supports a glass curtain wall. Numerous transparent pyramids sit in the framework of the curtain wall. It is equipped with a customized system that melts the snow and it, in turn, gets directed to integrated drains.
The roof structure has contrasting elements of smooth white aluminium plates that look like overlapping shells and skewered glass curtain walls.
Warm Interiors of a Music Instrument
The organic exterior of the Harbin Opera House encompasses warm wood-clad interiors of the theatres with seats arranged in pockets overlooking the stage and equipped with acoustical ingenuity. The insides of the theatres – from the galleries and balconies to the walls and ceilings are clad with Manchurian Ash. The raked seating of the small theatre is furnished with perforated and non-perforated wood panels to enhance the acoustics.
The interiors of the theatres are designed to evoke the warmth of the inside of a musical instrument, says Ma Yansong. The acoustics are designed in such a way as to accommodate both classical and contemporary music.
Accessible Roof | MAD Architects
The roof of the Harbin Opera House, made of overlapping white shells contains a niche with a winding marble-clad staircase leading up scenic views of the surroundings. MAD Architects collaborated with the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design in designing the steel skeleton that holds the fluid exteriors. Parts of the pristine white shells are clad with smooth white aluminium panels.
A roof garden being the destination of the winding path was designed as an ode to the tradition of trekking up sacred mountainous terrain in China’s landscapes.
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Journal. (2018). Behind the Building: Harbin Opera House by MAD Architects – Architizer Journal. [online] Available at: https://architizer.com/blog/inspiration/collections/harbin-opera-house/#:~:text=Precast%20Concrete&text=Working%20in%20tandem%20with%20the [Accessed 2 Apr. 2021].
Wikipedia. (2020). Harbin Grand Theatre. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harbin_Grand_Theatre [Accessed 2 Apr. 2021].