Monday, December 24, 2007

Heaven and earth, round above square

Chinese Unveil Mammoth Arts Center By JOSEPH KAHN December 24, 2007
The new National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing is meant to establish a cultural core next to Tiananmen Square, a political center.

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.

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