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Music In The Air

Two opera houses – one in China, the other in Germany – are challenging the future of architecture

By Piet Smedy | May 14, 2017 | Category Design

Photographs: Courtesy of Adam Mork, Hufton & Crow, Iwan Baan
Photographs: Courtesy of Adam Mork, Hufton & Crow, Iwan Baan

Two opera houses – one in China, the other in Germany – are challenging the future of architecture. ‘In this era of beautiful virtual reality, our work has to have real impact,’ says architect Jacques Herzog of Herzog & de Meuron. See how this ethos is shaping modern-day architectural thinking.

Harbin Opera House

Drawing inspiration from the untamed marshlands, the rushing water and bleak, frozen conditions of the Songhua River in Northern China, the recently completed MAD Architects-designed Harbin Opera House is a thing of organic beauty. The structure’s squid-like tentacles sprawl across roughly 80 000 square metres of Harbin Cultural Island, a development geared to celebrating the region’s diverse artistic traditions.

The sinuous, curvilinear façade was designed to meld seamlessly with its surrounds as if it had been formed by the snowy winds and glacial waters of Northern China, where it is located. Yet inside, the setting sits in warmly comfortable opposition to its environment. The opera house lobby is dominated by a massive crystalline chandelier and faceted glass ceiling, a dramatic segue into the various chambers. The most impressive of these is the grand theatre, clad in Manchurian Ash and dimly illuminated by a constellation of spotlights and a subtle skylight, that can accommodate up to 1 600 guests. The second theatre employs a panoramic soundproof sheet of glass as the stage backdrop, successfully casting the moody landscape beyond as the key players in any performance.

Drawing on the cultural influence of both China and nearby Russia, Harbin has long been considered a hub of music and theatre in the country’s northern region, which makes it the ideal setting for such an ambitious, yet sensitive, project.


Commercial structures reinvented as cultural attractions? It’s a phenomenon happening all over the world but nowhere more dramatically than in Hamburg. There, a 2 820-seat concert venue has opened atop one of the city’s largest warehouse buildings, a masonry behemoth dating from the nineteenth century. Designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, the glass-clad concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, perches on the building like an iceberg that’s too cool to melt. The warehouse ‘will now bear on top the load that it once carried within its walls,’ states Jacques Herzog, who founded the firm with Pierre de Meuron.

For the Elbphilharmonie, Herzog says, one influence was the Greek amphitheatre – carved out of the ground, as much geology as it is architecture. Another was the canopies used at festivals. The Elbphilharmonie seems to embody both, like a vast rock outcropping culminating in a tentlike roof. Viewers will also see mountains, waves and sailing ships in the richly evocative edifice. The interior of the main 2 100-seat concert hall is similarly geological – its wraparound balconies rise steeply, like rock strata exposed in a quarry.

The Elbphilharmonie is, surprisingly, the first concert hall designed by Herzog & de Meuron. But the firm drew on its experience designing stadiums, including Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest, the Matmut Atlantique in Bordeaux, France and the balloonlike Allianz Arena in Munich. Those buildings couldn’t be more different – which is just how the architects like it.

Photographs Courtesy of Mad Architects and Herzog & de Meuron

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