Aside from its yearly ice-sculpture festival, Harbin, in the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang, has long been known for a haul of hybrid architecture and a superb music scene. The only thing missing was a joint showcase. That changed in 2010 when Beijing-based MAD Architects won the international competition for designing Harbin Cultural Island on the Songhua River, which, when complete, will also include a recreational center and wetland parks. As the first salvo of the 180-hectare development, the Harbin Opera House is a spectacularly theatrical conceit. Rising up over the lush wetlands, its sinuous facade of white aluminum panels swells and dips, swooping in gorgeous swirls that evoke a drifting snowstorm, or a futuristic yurt.
The meteorological references are deliberate, a none-too-subtle nod to the notoriously savage winters and dramatically sparse landscape of Chinaâ€™s eighth most populous city. That said, the architecture is also a melodic progression of spaces beginning with a grand piazza; then indoor public areas wrapped by huge glass curtain walls, while light streams in through a honeycombed skylight thatâ€™s meant to reference billowing snow and ice; and finally the grand 1,600-seat theater, clad in Manchurian ash wood thatâ€™s been cut and molded to resemble an eroded cavern. And at the top of the building is an alfresco performance space that doubles as a viewing platform overlooking the surrounding wetlands and, farther out, downtown Harbinâ€™s distant skyline. In one fell swoop, it seems that the city has seized Chinaâ€™s cultural high ground. Bravo.Â â€”Daven Wu
This article originally appeared in theÂ February/MarchÂ print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śA High Note for Harbin”).