Have you seen this … ? Harbin Opera House, Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, China (P.R.C.)

Have you seen this … ?

Do you know where the city of Harbin is? Probably not, or at least I didn’t, until I came across its opera house.

The first step was to locate the city, which is in the Heilongjiang Province of northeastern China. Then, a question popped up in no time: “what is such an elaborate building doing in the most remote province of the country?”.

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Step number two imposed to collect information for this unknown place. I must say that after reading about the history of the region everything came into place. The city of Harbin was essentially founded in the late 19th century as a station for the Chinese Eastern Railway and was inhabited mostly by Russian immigrants. Obviously the city grew up with influences from the Russian Empire of the time and inevitably developed an inclination towards music, theatre and performance arts. Apart from these, Harbin is also famous, among others, for its winter tourism (ice sculpture festival) and for the summer music concert. As you can see, culture is not a stranger to this land of marshes, frigid climate and wilderness.

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Consequently, the new opera house of the city couldn’t be just a mere “shell” to host the necessary uses needed. It had to be a new landmark that would work as a pole of cultural attraction and a semiological reference to the landscape and climate of the region. MAD Architects, who undertook the project, say that their design represents the embodiment of a contemporary interpretation of Eastern affinity for nature and the undulatory form is a medium to blend in with the surrounding scenery.

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Job pretty-extraordinarily-mesmerizingly well done if you ask me. The design team promised and delivered. The smooth ribbons cladded with aluminum panels are like contours on a topographical map that come in contrast with the “rugged” faceted glass skylight.

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The first element (smooth ribbons) is a citation of the marshes formed by the adjacent Songhua River and the second element (glass skylight) resembles the edgy ice formed in the winter months. The curved lines create a three-petal form that coils around the three main uses of the complex:

  • the grand theatre of a capacity of 1600 visitors,
  • a smaller performance space of 400 seats and
  • a public plaza that is accessible from the outside.

The later also offers an experience with local topography at its center while walking around.

On the inside, some very interesting choices have been made. The great hall of the opera is cladded with thin bended Manchurian oak stripes of wood that emit a sense of luxury.

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Seeing the visitor area from afar, it looks like a whole block of wood is carved in order to create the openings for the people to watch the main event since the very thin strips of wood are not perceivable from distance. Additionally, all these curves manage to convey a feeling of organicity to the audience, which I believe has a positive impact on the final experience, as you feel like a “live” and indispensable part of this set-up. As if you are absolutely needed to be there in order for this structure to have its purpose fulfilled.

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The smaller theatre is much less austere compared to its big brother. It is a rectangular space with a window as background to the stage and curved panels on the side walls, that resemble a soundwave ripple.

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The window is there to introduce the audience to the scenery, as an additional and independent role in every performance, if chosen to do so. In this way the outside becomes part of the whole experience received.

In conclusion, I believe that the project is a complete success. I love the aesthetics, the contradiction between materials, textures and the contrast between organic and linear, though very few, surfaces. The result is a building that radiates… future, cleanness, culture and things done with precision and attention to detail.

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The most impressive thing of all? The building during winter time with snow around it. See this aspect of the Harbin Opera House and I think you will understand why the preliminary announcements of the architects became truth in the end.

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-by Spyr_s Margetis

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