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Sometime in the spring of 2004, the Chinese authorities (a necessarily vague description) began to lose confidence in Beijing’s booming trade in Western architecture. In May, The Times claimed Koolhaas’ CCTV tower was definitely deceased. It was, the newspaper reported, the personal decision of the new premier Wen Jiabao, demonstrating his authority by repudiating the previous regime’s obsession with mega-developments. Then Herzog & de Meuron’s Olympic stadium was put on hold, along with Paul Andreu’s National Grand Theatre, which had long been the subject of fierce debate. By early September, half of the venues for the Olympics were scrapped or under threat. Then as a symbolic move against foreign architects, a new regulation was passed requiring them to enter joint ventures with local firms before they take on Chinese projects. Finally, in mid-September, a conservative design by Gerkan, Marg & Partner and the China Academy of Building Research was chosen for the National Museum of China redevelopment. It beat more radical submissions by Herzog & de Meuron, Foster + Partners, the Cox Group and OMA. The halted or overlooked projects seemed destined to join unbuilt Chinese gems by Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito, and countless others.
There were many reasons for the temporary loss of faith in imported architecture, but the most immediate was the Beijing connection. Before, cosmopolitan architectural experiment was a Shanghai thing; now with the Olympics it was moving into the nation’s more conservative capital. While President Jiang Zemin thought new architecture would complement the architecture of the state, the new regime of Hu Jintao and Wen seemed less sure.
That’s why the gentle bubble-like form of Andreu’s National Theatre, and not the mad zig-zag of Koolhaas’ CCTV tower, was really ground zero for the backlash of 2004. The theatre, promised since the 50s, was being built opposite (and a little to the left) of the Forbidden City’s gates, and next door to the Great Hall of the People. The theatre’s titanium and glass dome is forty-six metres tall, exactly the height of the Great Hall (the design rules stipulated it be no higher), and from its upper levels the residences of government officials, tucked in leafy pockets away from Changan Avenue, can be seen by the public for the first time.
Within this context, Andreu’s design asserts its own claim to monumentality. Elliptical in plan and section, it seats an opera house, a concert hall and two theatres beneath a single shell. A complex steel structure of 148 radial trusses, cut and welded together by thousands of workers, allows the structure to be both massive and transparent, its 22 000 tonne shell held up without internal supports. Like curtains pulled back coyly for a performance, the titanium dome is cut in two by a glass ribbon, one hundred metres wide at the base tapering to a mere sliver over the roof. To make the glass ribbon as uncluttered as possible, diagonal bracing was ruled out, replaced by light horizontal tubes. The building is encircled and sanctified by a lake, and to enter it, one must walk through a glazed tunnel beneath the waters. “I was always attached to the idea that you don’t enter an opera house as you might push open the door of a supermarket,’’ explained Andreu. “You need time to enter the world of opera.”
So close to the Forbidden Palace, the development inevitably drew comparisons with traditional Chinese aesthetics, few of them favourable. “Andreu has no idea of Chinese culture,” said one critic, Chinese-Canadian architect Alfred Peng. “His proposal is extremely incongruous with the surroundings.’’ The building wasn’t built with feng shui in mind, and some claim the underwater entrance carries connotations of entombment.
In truth, Andreu lost the symbolism battle early on. Most landmark Chinese buildings organically generate an affectionate, symbolic nickname. Herzog & de Meuron’s Olympic stadium is a “bird’s nest”, Norman Foster’s Beijing Airport a “dragon” - both with positive associations, making these perhaps more radical designs easier to digest. But Andreu’s Theatre was always “the egg”. That might have been complimentary - indeed, an egg floating in a lake resembles the beginnings of the universe as imagined by ancient Chinese cosmology - but instead it carried the unfortunate connotation of something that has been laid. Controlling the symbolism in the Chinese architecture market - especially for abstracted contemporary architecture - is important but difficult. Kohn Pedersen Fox tried it for their still-to-be-completed Shanghai World Financial Centre, commissioned by a Tokyo-based builder: the tower’s squared peak with a circle cut-out resembled, they claimed, Chinese mythological representations of earth and sky, but Shanghai authorities said it reminded them of Japan’s rising-sun flag. Only when KPF changed the circle to a trapezoid could construction continue.
But the biggest PR (not to mention personal) disaster for Andreu was the collapse of his Terminal 2E building at Charles de Gaulle Airport, killing four, including two Chinese tourists. It happened just as Wen was apparently turning against CCTV in early 2004, and it acted as a lighting rod for all the pent-up anger and concern about foreign architecture in China. Critics claimed the elliptical form of Terminal 2E, which proved to be overstressed and weakened by puncturing, resembled a smaller model for the National Grand Theatre shell. The Chinese authorities immediately halted construction to double-check the models. A panel of 100 Chinese engineers questioned the theatre’s French engineering team for a week.
As Andreu correctly points out, there was nothing formally radical about Terminal 2E’s elliptical design, one of dozens of airport structures around the world that bear his name and his reputation. What went wrong with the design, according to a report released in 2005, was a lack of detailed analysis of the design models, combined with a construction process that cut corners to save time. One problem may have been that the state-owned Aéroports de Paris, who Andreu worked for, acted as architect, engineer, construction manager and client, a closed loop without independent oversight. Andreu has since left ADP and set up practice on his own.
After Andreu’s theatre once again proved its credentials, construction resumed. Along with CCTV, it survived the panic - indeed, its gala opening looms. The finished building will represent an extraordinary engineering feat. It set Beijing’s widest and deepest foundations to date, cutting through the water table to a depth of 32.5 metres. 28,000 cubic metres of water were pumped out of the hole every day while water-resistant concrete formed the submerged foundations. The below-ground spaces will hold theatres and support facilities. Above, the 213 metre long, 144 metre wide lobby, clad warmly in mahogany timber stripes, will form a succession of streets, plazas and lounges. The opera house will be at its centre, finished with opaque gilt metal mesh, with the concert hall and theatre on either side. Cavernous spaces done with a lightness of touch, slowly revealing their hidden depths: this is the streamlined, futurist world of airport architecture taken to the opera. Instead of being ushered onto a jet, we are being ushered into a theatre. It is, Andreu hopes, his masterpiece, and he has edicated nearly a decade to its fulfillment.
So how does Andreu feel about its troubled reception? “To have unanimity on such a project is impossible,’’ he told the New York Times. “I expect quite a number of people in China will say they don’t like it. But a creation is bound to be something that disturbs. If it is just a reproduction, it is handicraft. My purpose is to do something original. I can only hope that it disturbs in a positive way." +
Top. Paul Andreu’s National Grand heatre in Beijing, overlooked by the Great Hall of the People. Bitterly contested, the theatre came close to remaining a mere rendering..
Second. Emerging out of the tunnel into the light, some of the theatre’s first visitors.
Third. A rendering of the National Grand Theatre at night. The dome hovering over water extends Andreu’s earlier design for the Osaka Maritime Museum.
Bottom. A dining area overlooking the gauzy opera theatre.
Images Courtesy and Copyright of Paul Andreu, Cristal, Bernard Dragon, Hervé Langlais, ZXYZ.