It was always going to be an audacious project and here it is, against all odds, a huge contemporary theatre complex adjacent to Tiananmen Square and Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City. It boasts a vast array of nicknames ranging from the eggshell to the jellyfish. The new National Centre for Performing Arts, to use its official title is a vast steel envelope, clad in titanium and glass encasing three auditoria. Emerging out of an artificial lake, the entrance is by way of a subterranean gallery.
Trial performances have been taking place ahead of an official opening on December 25th to be presided over by President Hu Jinto.
Andreu’s brave design has been controversial from the start. The project, one of the major architectural flagships of the Chinese capital planned to coincide with next year’s Olympics has been plagued with detractors even before work was started. Firstly the cost, at $400 million was seen by many Beijinger’s as an unnecessary expense and branded as “elitist”, a particularly sensitive issue for any Communist government. Then came the design, clearly not everyone was going to warm to the Parisian’s adventurous form - and they didn’t. Especially the many who were against foreign architects shaping their city. Some even believe the building upsets the Feng Shui of central Beijing. Professor Alfred Peng of Tsinghua University, one of its fiercest critics, says the building is unsuitable for Beijing. "It's totally out of place, it doesn't fit within the whole. It's all courtyard houses around here. This doesn't integrate with any urban fabric in this neighbourhood." Further he believes that the theatre is disconnected from the surrounding hutongs, Beijing's traditional courtyard houses, and the people who live in them.
Then in 2004, came the Paris Airport tragedy. A section of roof at Paul Andreu’s terminal 2E at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport collapsed killing four passengers. Compounding matters, two of the victims were Chinese. The Chinese Government got cold feet and immediately put the Beijing project on hold while a review was carried out.
The project got the all-clear and was soon restarted. In the meantime, Andreu had been commissioned for another performing arts centre, this time in Shanghai. China’s second city was hugely competitive and in a bid to upstage Beijing, it was commissioned after and completed before the Beijing theatre.
There is another dimension to this story and one which in many ways is symbolic of the evolution of the dragon. China has bizarrely developed a passion for western classical music, a fact highlighted by the huge numbers of children throughout China being encouraged to play the piano by their parents. Global piano manufacturers were already migrating to China, with many established names such as Broadwood, Knight and Welmar forced to either close or move production east. One factory alone, Pearlriver, a Guangzhou manufacturer, is the second largest manufacturer in the world and last year saw some 200,000 pianos produced in China.
Insiders say that the production level of pianos reflects the level of technology and artistry in a country, for the manufacture of the instrument is complicated, with 6,000 parts required to assemble for one piano. The growing domestic market is now fuelling the production further.
This is all particularly ironic and a far cry from the days of the Cultural Revolution where dozens of musicians were tortured, murdered or forced to commit suicide at the Shanghai Conservatory, once the foremost centre for Western music in Asia. Then the piano was condemned as a bourgeois instrument and many pianists had their fingers broken – now China manufactures more pianos than anywhere else in the world.
There used to be nine million bicycles in Beijing, soon there may be nine million pianos…
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