Chinese Unveil Mammoth Arts Center

Chinese Unveil Mammoth Arts Center


Published : December 24, 2007 / The New York Times

BEIJING — Compared variously to a floating pearl and a duck egg, the titanium-and-glass half-dome of the National Center for the Performing Arts formally opened its underwater entryway to Chinese officials and dignitaries here over the weekend.

The $400 million complex, a concert hall, opera house and theater under one space age span, is designed to be the center of Chinese culture, just as Tiananmen Square next door was designated this country’s political center.

The complex’s lush, dazzling interior, sophisticated acoustics and mechanical wizardry rival any hall in Europe or the United States, its promoters say. Chen Ping, the center’s director, proclaimed it “a concrete example of China’s rising soft power and comprehensive national strength” during the opening ceremony on Saturday night.

Yet the center, designed by the French architect Paul Andreu, has attracted at least as much attention for its cost overruns, safety concerns and provocative aesthetics.

And the hall’s artistic directors, appointed after prolonged bureaucratic squabbling, had to scramble to line up a credible schedule of performances for the premier season, which runs from late December until April, organizers said.

The opening event was an eclectic sampler of Chinese and Western musical classics, with two conductors, two orchestras, four choral groups and a half-dozen soloists, a mélange that showed off the building’s acoustics but underscored its continuing search for an artistic mission.

Li Changchun, a senior Communist Party leader, was the guest of honor at the event, broadcast on national television. At each interlude in the program camera operators hustled to the row in front of Mr. Li to record him clapping.

The center joins a list of monoliths designed by foreign architects — the bird’s-nest Olympic stadium and the cantilevered towers of China Central Television’s new headquarters among them — that have remade the Beijing skyline and projected the soaring ambitions and bulging coffers of the Communist Party leadership.

Mr. Andreu’s creation joins the Shanghai Grand Theater, designed by another Frenchman, Jean-Marie Charpentier, as one of the top performance halls in China.

That field will grow crowded, however, as other cities pour hundreds of millions of dollars into their own cultural showcases. Zaha Hadid, the London architect, is building an opera house for Guangzhou, a provincial capital. The architect Carlos Ott, a Canadian born in Uruguay, has four contracts for performance halls in smaller cities.

Whether this adds up to a cultural renaissance or an edifice contest remains unclear. China has produced first-rate classical musicians, including the pianists Yundi Li, who performed a solo on Saturday night, and Lang Lang. Yet its musical groups, ballets and symphony orchestras have received far less attention than the concert halls. They face financial constraints, political censorship and public indifference.

“China needs a top national performance hall of this kind,” Wu Zuqiang, who heads the center’s arts committee, said in an interview before it opened. “But promoting national culture will take extended efforts, and will require some adjustments in our approach.”

Officials call the complex the largest performing arts center in the world, twice as big as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It was designed to be conspicuous.

Mr. Andreu said that he envisioned the hall as a tribute to the traditional Chinese image of heaven and earth, round above square. His bubblelike soaring glass dome encloses several performance spaces and is suspended above a shallow pool. Viewed at night, illuminated from within, the dome resembles a spaceship hovering over a calm lake. But on dim days when the haze and dust of Beijing cover the silvery titanium shell, the hall can look no more distinguished than an airport service hangar.

A few years ago a group of Chinese architects organized a vocal petition campaign to protest the design. They said it blended poorly with the Stalinist Great Hall of the People next door and high vermilion walls of the imperial Forbidden City across the street.

Their effort received a boost in 2004 when the roof of a new terminal building at the Charles de Gaulle International Airport near Paris, which Mr. Andreu also designed, collapsed. Some critics of the design said that the complex’s entryway, a subterranean glass-enclosed corridor extending 250 feet under the artificial lake, posed safety risks in the event of structural problems or a terrorist attack.

The project faced stoppages and reviews, and was several years late and many tens of millions of dollars over budget.

In Chinese media interviews, Mr. Andreu has spoken of the “enormous stress” surrounding construction, including the cleaning bills after dust and sandstorms buffeted the dome’s exterior. But he defended his hypermodern approach.

“Your people do not look back,” he told the state-run People’s Daily newspaper. “They have a history and are proud of it. But they live and look ahead.”

Criticism has faded somewhat since the complex began a soft opening in October and invited guests had their first glimpses of the elaborate interior.

The dome’s inside is paneled with long spans of Brazilian mahogany, giving the expanse an unexpectedly warm feel. The floors are paved with soft white, yellow and gray marble from 22 Chinese provinces, selected so that their grains form continuous lines.

The walls of the theater, the smallest of the performance spaces, are covered in thick padded silk, divided in strips of red, purple and tangerine. The ceiling of the cool-white concert hall consists of undulating waves of acoustic panels that resemble abstract art.

For its opening season the center has relied heavily on foreign talent. The first big concert open to the public is scheduled for New Year’s Eve, when Seiji Ozawa is to conduct the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra. Lang Lang, the soprano Kathleen Battle, and the Russian violinist Vadim Repin are to perform solos.

Later in the season Lorin Maazel will bring the New York Philharmonic to town, and Kurt Masur will conduct the London Philharmonic.

For ballet the center’s managers turned to the Russian Kirov, which plans to stage such dance classics as “Prince Igor,” “Swan Lake,” Balanchine’s “Jewels” and “Le Corsaire” in succession.

Cameron Mackintosh, the British impresario, has created a Mandarin version of “Les Misérables” for the hall, though the timing of that performance has not been announced.

The center also will be host to a long list of Chinese performance groups. Competing symphony orchestras in Beijing and Shanghai plan multiple appearances. The Shanghai Opera House will stage “Othello,” and the National Ballet of China will perform “Romeo and Juliet.” A dance ensemble of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force plans to revive “Sister Jiang,” a classic ballet of early Socialism.

In a recent interview with the Chinese magazine Oriental Outlook, Wang Zhengming, the center’s deputy director, said the national center is under pressure to feature Chinese works but said his choices are limited.

“It’s troublesome because opera and ballet are really imported art forms,” he said. “We’re better in ballet, but our most famous works are the red classics from 40 years ago. Opera is a bigger problem because the most popular classics and new works are all from overseas.”