For most Europeans, Harbin is not known as a tourist attraction or cultural centre. However, among Russians and Chinese, the city of 4.5 million in northeast China is a popular travel destination, especially –and surprisingly – in the wintertime, when the temperature can plummet to -40˚C. Every winter, the world’s largest ice-sculpture festival takes place on Sun Island, a 177-hectare park north of the city centre.
Last autumn, the Chinese-American MAD architecture studio created a large, unique sculpture of a sort on the flat lands surrounding the river. Harbin’s new opera house has 80,000 m² of usable space under its shimmering, silvery metal skin, which evokes associations with snow cornices and icebergs, at least during the winter. The complex, which is to be expanded to include a congress centre and hotel, features opera halls for 1,600 and 400 spectators plus stages, associated spaces, and an underground parking lot.
There is also a rooftop terrace: between the folds in the metal shell, visitors can take the stairs up to the roof of the fly tower. From there, sheltered from snow and wind by a helmet-like roof mounting – they have a view over the city and the Songhua River.
The atmosphere inside the foyer is as cool as inside a mammoth snow cave. Daylight falls through the glass roof, which is supported by a white, honeycomb-like steel structure. Only the rear wall of the great hall and its galleries forms a warm-coloured contrast. With its gallery paths and conchoids stairways, this large-scale sculpture resembles a huge, biomorphic radiator grill.
At any rate, the surface cladding of Manchurian ash is effective, especially considering the diversity of materials and constructions used here. Parts of the cladding consist of solid wood, other parts of a thin veneer over fibreglass concrete elements. In some places, individual wooden slats have been glued to these elements.
The wood-veneer biomorphism is carried through inside the great hall. While the audience spaces of most opera houses are generally constructed as black boxes, this one, with its extensive glass roof which allows daylight in and creates a link with the world outside, surprises us just as much as the foyer.
In the smaller hall, the link to outside is even more palpable – at least as long as the backstage area remains open. Then, a large glass wall provides a view of the river and city. Formally speaking, this hall is closer to the familiar shoebox typology. In order to remove the smoothness from this space shape, the architects have given the prefab concrete pieces on the walls an undulant texture. The effect is quite striking, as if the sound waves from the final chord of the last performance were frozen in space.