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 China’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 that’s meant to reference billowing snow and ice; and finally the grand 1,600-seat theater, clad in Manchurian ash wood that’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 Harbin’s distant skyline. In one fell swoop, it seems that the city has seized China’s cultural high ground. Bravo. —Daven Wu
This article originally appeared in the February/March print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A High Note for Harbin”).