This is a quite extraordinary building. Perhaps the least heralded of the major works associated with Beijing circa 2007-09 - compared to the Water Cube, Birds Nest, CCTV, Terminal 3 etc. - It was the only one of that extraordinary list that I got a close look at (save a functional drift through the airport and a drive-by of CCTV). Designed by Paul Andreu, the opera house is a vast titanium dome sitting in a man-made lake, on Chang’an Avenue, and next to Tiananmen Square.
Its form, and its proximity to the Forbidden Palace, have apparently generated much criticism from both whatever the Beijing equivalent of ‘the man on the Clapham Omnibus’ is as well as the local media. A cost blow-out may be partly to blame - though the Party have pointed out that an opera house is hardly going to be a ‘for-profit’ enterprise, thank goodness - but it’s the form of the thing that appears to be problematic, earning it the unflattering nickname of ‘the egg’.
We approached from an angle, along said vast Chang’an Avenue, from which the structure wasn’t immediately obvious, interestingly. Only getting out, and getting closer, and later circling it, does it become clear. Personally, I loved it, but then I have different cultural blinkers on. As you enter the building by descending underneath it, dipping down under the hoisted-up lake, what becomes clear is that the design and build quality is extremely high. The steps outside have several people sweeping autumn leaves away - older workers, as is often the case in China and Japan - and they lead down into the pleasingly dark entrance hall.
Through a security gate with x-ray, and we’re in …
I look up and notice we’re walking under the water. The lake, or moat, is now above our heads and sits on a transparent base, which is our ceiling. It’s a lovely effect, with the blue sky filtering through the gently rippling water, throwing shadows and light onto the polished concrete walls. Utterly simple, and a basic kind of architectural special effect I suppose, but it works.
We walk past a frieze on the wall which shows the Sydney Opera House, and then what I think was La Scala in Milan, and then an image of itself, the NCPA, as if to instantly proclaim its arrival in the premier league of venues.
Within minutes, it would become clear that this wasn’t a ludicrous claim at all …
Moving into the main hall, the incredible scale of interior is slowly becoming clear. It deploys the same trick - of pushing people through a slim threshold in order to explode them into a cavernous space - as Herzog + De Meuron pulled with the Tate Modern. The egg shape of the dome, and the sunken nature of the auditorium, actually means its exterior presence is smaller than its interior, TARDIS-like.
The main hall is overwhelmingly red, rows of seats and banks of boxes arching over our heads, in contrast perhaps to the deep blue of the threshold space defined by the glass lattice edge of the dome. This skin is blue today, given the perfect weather outside, and absolutely stunning when mirrored by the polished marble floors.
The wood panelling on the interior of the dome is particularly gorgeous, and the expensive materials simply continue to unfold throughout the building - those polished marble floors, in grey and gold, are laid out throughout the lobby areas; a fine gold gauze surrounds the vast drum containing the hall; ascending staircases are slightly gaudy perhaps, with slats of lighting awkwardly pinned to them, whereas perfect staircases of curving white marble descend underneath the main hall.
It’s all quite overwhelming. And this is in contrast to one of those icons alluded to in the cheeky interior frieze.
Elizabeth Farrelly recently noted how the Sydney Opera House does not achieve this kind of symphonic orchestration of space throughout the building, how it fails to build to a crescendo during the ascent into its main halls.
“Whether you fly over, sail past, run through the rain or mount the prehistoric stair into the Opera House's mysterious belly, it's impossible not to expect that the moment will come; the moment when, with shells soaring high above, you, puny human, inhabit transcendent space. This is the building's promise. But the moment never arrives … the result is that the Sydney Opera House is an undeniably glorious object, the internal experience of which is about as transcendental as speech day in the school hall.” [Elizabeth Farrelly, Sydney Morning Herald]
This building cannot be accused of the same, and while few if any can compare to the Sydney Opera House’s formal bravado in the exterior, you do begin to wonder whether the chutzpah (is there a Chinese word for that?!) of that opening frieze instantly placing the NCPA alongside Sydney and Milan might not be that misplaced.