Cultural ambition

5 May 2011

Guangzhou unveils landmark projects as city of culture
By Mark O´Neill

On the banks of the Pearl River is a ‘treasure box and two boulders’ – two landmark projects that opened this year, to mark the ambitions of Guangzhou to become a city of culture as well as of commerce.

The ‘treasure box’ is the Guangdong Provincial Museum, designed by Hong Kong architect Rocco Yim and opened in May. Facing it is the ‘two boulders’ — the Guangzhou Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born British architect. It had a soft opening in May with a production of Puccini’s ‘Turandot’.

Next to them are a new Youth Centre and the Guangzhou City Library, due to be completed next year. The four constitute the cultural centre of the Pearl River New City, a district of 6.6 square kilometres that has mushroomed over the last 10 years out of rice fields and vegetable patches next to the river.

The four buildings are dwarfed by skyscraper hotels, office buildings and residential blocks that are among the tallest structures in China. There are six buildings over 300 metres. With its spire, the television tower is the highest in China, at 610 metres, while the West Tower office block is 432 metres high and the Li Tong building, completed on July 28, measures 303 metres.

“Guangzhou realised that the competitiveness of a city in the 21st century is not just about money but about attracting talent to live there with a rich cultural life and diversity,” said Rocco Yim in an interview.

It was in 2002 that the Provincial Government announced the objective of making Guangdong ‘a province of culture’. The area between the Museum and the Opera House will become ‘the Cultural Plaza’, overlooking the Pearl River.

The treasure box

Winning the competition to design the Museum was a milestone for Rocco Yim and Hong Kong. It was the first major cultural project in the mainland to be designed by a Hong Kong architect. “To provide a landmark for a city which can be enjoyed by anyone is a dream for any architect, especially a building that is open to the public,” he says. “In Guangzhou, entry to the Museum is free. It is culturally and socially very meaningful.”

Following an edict from the Central Government in March 2008, all provincial museums are free. The Guangdong Provincial Museum is attracting an average of 8,500 visitors a day, with a maximum of 18,000 at the weekend – so many that their entry has to be regulated.

Yim’s design is original — a five-storey rectangular building that resembles a Chinese treasure box, with dark grey cladding and irregular rectangular cut-outs on the exterior; the inside of the cuts are a bright Chinese red.

“Culturally, a museum is a container of heritage, and traditionally Chinese people put precious objects in exquisite treasure boxes, which were often as valuable as the contents they held,” he says. “The imagery we conceived for the Museum is therefore a treasure box – an object of art in itself and one that exudes a quality of mystique.
“In my mind, what differentiates Chinese artefacts, like jade and wood carving, from Western ones, such as large Greek statues, is that the former usually possess this delicate quality that entices you to explore and contemplate, to look for something beyond what you see. Like its contents, the architecture of the Museum is intended to entice you to explore and discover beyond its envelope,” he says.

He notes that the Museum needed to establish an urban relationship with the Opera House and create a dialogue in terms of visual intensity and symbolic meaning, because the two represent the new cultural aspirations of the city. “The deliberate visual contrast and tension that we set up between the precise and man-made box – the Museum – and the fluid and plastic boulders – the Opera House – is intended precisely to establish that relationship.”

The project had a budget of 900 million yuan and took four and a half years to build. The biggest engineering challenge was that the structural system is a large cantilever with all the floor slabs suspended off a steel roof-truss mega-structure, supported centrally off the ground. “The intent was to allow flexible space for the galleries inside, with no intrusion of columns and to liberate the ground floor that creates an uncluttered fusion of public and private space,” he says.

Diverse collection

The main door opens into an atrium of 4,300 square metres lit by sunlight from the ceiling; hanging from the roof is an aluminium gauze. A wide staircase with low steps leads to the first floor and the first galleries. The permanent collection offers a great diversity of exhibits — inkstones; seals; clay figurines; Chaozhou wood carvings; painting and calligraphy of the Tang and Song dynasties and pottery and porcelain, as well as a history of Guangdong Province and its natural resources, including minerals, gems, Chinese medicines, wild and sea animals and fossils.

There is a room containing a 42-metre dragon boat. The history gallery has a wooden boat like those used in the Ming dynasty to carry Chinese voyagers to South-East Asia and East Africa. It includes recreations of shops from earlier eras and presentations of Chinatowns created by the Cantonese in foreign lands.
We see models of the Kaiping towers – built with the money of wealthy expatriates – and photographs of the many Cantonese who played such a prominent part in their nation’s history. Without them, there would have been no Xinhai revolution in 1911 and no reform and open-door policy. Also included are foreign faces, for example, Catholic missionaries Matteo Ricci and Saint Francis Xavier.

“In the early Qing dynasty, we Chinese were arrogant and rejected everything from abroad because we believed we had all we needed,” says the young graduate student showing me around. “Then came the Opium Wars and the humiliations by foreign powers, which left us with an inferiority complex.

“Now, after 30 years of economic success, we have recovered our self-confidence. We are ready to accept the best things from the outside world. Cantonese have played a critical role in this process, ready to adapt to the outside and accept foreign ideas and people.

“Guangzhou is full of African and Arab merchants, their wives plump in flowing dresses or in burqhas. Europeans may have a problem with burqhas but we do not. In the Tang dynasty, Guangzhou was a centre of international commerce and many Arabs lived here. This is in our historical memory,” he says.

On each floor, there are irregular alcoves between the exhibits where visitors can rest and enjoy a view over the Pearl River. The corridors are wide, providing a great deal of public space, so that visitors can move freely and easily.

Yim says that they ensured optimum diffused light in the central atrium and brought in light at the break-out and rest spaces, major circulation points and selected special rooms, such as the restaurants and club-room for the Friends of the Museum. “On the other hand, it is imperative to block or divert the natural light in specific galleries, so that vulnerable items such as ancient scrolls and paintings could be protected,” he says.

Born and educated in Hong Kong, Yim is one of the best-known architects in the SAR. After graduating from the University of Hong Kong, he joined the firm Spence Robinson for two years before starting his own practice in 1979, which eventually evolved into a partnership with two other architects in 1982.

He has won awards for his work in Hong Kong and internationally. In 2008, he won the design for the new Hong Kong SAR Government headquarters in the Central district of the city and the Yunnan Provincial Museum in Kunming. In Macao he designed the Star World hotel and casino with the double-layer exterior glass wall. His firm has submitted a design for the Guangzhou City Museum, to be built in the Baiyunshan area of the city.

‘Pebbles from the river bed’

Facing the Museum is the new Opera House, another building that stands out conspicuously among the forest of skyscrapers. The big ‘boulder’ contains an 1,800-seater auditorium for opera, ballet, theatre and music performances, and the small boulder a 400-seat multi-purpose space for theatre, conferences and exhibitions.
It was designed by Zaha Hadid, one of Britain’s most famous architects, who in 2004 became the first female recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The London-based practice she founded in 1980 employs 400 people.

Asked how they came up with this eye-catching idea, Simon Yu, her project architect on site, says that they had a design repertoire of landscapes and geographic formations. “We liked erosion and stones. It worked well next to the Pearl River. The metaphor is two pebbles picked from the bed of the river and placed on the river bank.”

The project, with a budget of 1.38 billion yuan, attracted nine bids from major international firms, of which four were short-listed. The city invited residents to vote: Hadid’s entry won the most votes and was chosen by the selection jury.
“We were very excited. It was our first project in China,” says Yu. Its partner was a unit of the China State Construction Company (CSCC), one of the country’s biggest contractors, which built the Birds’ Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing.

Nothing is straight

For the CSCC, building the Opera House was an enormous challenge, as everything is leaning outward or cantilevered; nothing is straight or regular. “It was very difficult at the start,” says Yu. “Our Chinese partner had not done it before. They were keen to try and were up to the challenge. We learnt from each other and were humbled by the people.”

What keeps the building standing are heavy-duty steel sections joined by extremely rigid connections, using more than 100 cast steel connections or ‘nodes’. “They hold the lines together, like diamonds. The nodes were cast in advance. They brace and hold every line,” he says.

The exterior structure is clad with a mixture of glass and granite panels; black granite with a flamed or rough-textured finish has been used on the upper parts of the building, to reinforce the idea of a pebble washed up on the bank.

Acoustics in the main auditorium were also a challenge. “There are three principles – reverberations, clarity and sound pressure. For Western opera, the natural voice is emphasised. But Chinese opera emphasises the visual aspect, which requires more stage equipment, speakers and lighting,” he says.

The firm chose an asymmetrical auditorium, an unusual feature. “Our vision was like a cave, seamless and minimalist, which has shock appeal,” he adds.
It worked with Marshall Day, an international consultant of acoustics based in Melbourne. It used glass-reinforced gypsum panels to clad the interior; these were roughened up near the front of the auditorium.

Richard Margison, lead tenor in ‘Turandot’, the opera showing on the opening night, said the auditorium was large but had an intimate feel. “The acoustic is fantastic – not too dry and not too bright. During rehearsals, it felt a little too bright but, with the audience in there, it warmed up and the balance felt just right. The new building is spectacular and is definitely going to be a landmark.”

Social and civic venue

Jenny Liang, a public relations officer for the Opera House, said that it had the best acoustics in China. “We will host at least 200 cultural performances a year. Prices will vary according to the event. ‘Turandot’ was very expensive because the performers came from abroad.” The prices ranged from 380 to 2,800 yuan; for other events, the tickets will be as low as 80 yuan.

The second ‘boulder’ houses a multi-purpose venue that will host exhibitions, conferences and theatre. “We hope this space will be used all the time,” says Yu. “We want it to be a social and civic venue, open 24 hours a day, with a restaurant and coffee shop.” The space looks over what will become the Cultural Plaza, when the workmen have completed it. “Most opera houses tend to be expensive and exclusive to the public.”

The Guangzhou project includes elements of an opera house which Hadid designed for the Welsh capital, Cardiff. It won the bid and was accepted by the City Government; but a debate and lack of funding meant that it was never built.
The firm is doing two other projects in China – a property development in Beijing with 300,000 square metres for Soho China, and the ‘Innovation Tower’ at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, to house its School of Design. Born in October 1950 in Baghdad, Hadid obtained a degree in mathematics from the American University of Beirut before moving to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. She worked with her former teachers, before setting up her own practice in London in 1980. She has won many international competitions and completed landmark projects around the world.