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Harbin Opera House, Northern China, designed by MAD Architects, photo Iwan Baan, ice fishing in China
One of the most popular hobbies among the citizens of Harbin to date is ice fishing. Will the new concert hall become similarly popular?

Hardy Houses 4
Opera on Ice

A new concert hall now proudly stands in China’s coldest metropolis: the Harbin Opera designed by MAD Architects. It defies the icy cold with its rounded shapes.
by Florian Heilmeyer | 12/6/2016

Anyone who finds our winter too long and dark should take a look at those parts of the world where the winter is much, much longer and far darker. Such a glance elsewhere could focus, for example, on the multi-million metropolis of Harbin in the extreme northeast of China. In more than a few of the long January nights, the thermometer can quite easily drop to -40°C. From November to April the truly picturesque location on the banks of the Songhua Jiang River is transformed into icy wastelands where only a fiercely cold wind blows over the low bushes. 

Harbin Opera House, Northern China, designed by MAD Architects
The new opera house lies in the former wetlands north of the river, the Songhua Jiang.

Who wonders that the place was first permanently settled little more than a century ago. Not until 1898 was Harbin founded as a station on the Russian “Manchurian Railway,” and remained a relatively small outpost of the Soviet Union until 1946, albeit one with industry and a good railway line. Then along came Mao Zedong with his Communist Party and occupied Harbin, an act tolerated by the Russian government, which followed the Communist Revolution in the neighboring country very benevolently. Harbin thereupon swiftly emerged as the Communist Party’s first large industrial base in China. In the fledgling People’s Republic, the city became a provincial capital and people from the southern regions were resettled here to strengthen industry and the university.

Site plan: Both concert hall and surrounding park are expected to attract more people to the northern shore, with the two halves of the city thus growing together.

Not that they came happily – and soon after the residential regulations in communist China were relaxed, many swiftly headed home again. Obviously Harbin needed to be made more appealing. It required more attractions than just the tiger farm, which is home to some 800 Siberian tigers which are prepared for their (occasional) release back into the wild, and the annual beer festival hosted by a local brewery.
Thus, Harbin’s icy winter was declared a virtue and in 1984 the Ice Lantern Festival launched, which has meanwhile emerged as the largest of its kind worldwide. Today, each January teams from all over the world flock to the city to create huge sculptures out of ice and snow. The objects include large imitations of famous buildings, some of which are illuminated from within using chains of multicolored LEDs. A fragile, transient dreamworld that shortens the long nights with colorful lights. 

Along the façade, a public path leads up to a terrace offering a view of the city.

A new city crown

The city’s new opera house, designed by Beijing-based MAD Architects and opened in 2015, might be mistaken from afar for such a fragile sculpture. It’s hard to discern in the short summers or long winters that the soft spiral shapes of the three buildings are actually that, buildings. Like a large snail or a silvery dune the concert hall rises up from the former swamp to a height of as much as 56 meters; it is located on the northern bank of the river in the midst of a park the architects likewise designed.

The very next objective in the urban development of Harbin is to develop the swampy islands on the riverbank. Harbin has long since passed the ten-million-inhabitants mark and thus the parts of the city separated by the broad riverbed are now to grow together thanks to artificial islands. The opera with its park occupies an entire “cultural island” of its own, which is why the explicit idea was to give it a very special design as a kind of “city crown.”

The interior draws visitors inside with its soft shapes and warm lights.

The multiple curved skin consisting of large window areas and silvery aluminum panels is reminiscent not only of an armadillo, but also of Zaha Hadid’s opera a good 3,000 kilometers away in Guangzhou. However, it evolves above all by ascending gently, arising seemingly organically from the countryside, carved by wind, ice and water along the Songhua Jiang. The curves and triangular tips of the surface serve not only to buttress the spectacular, but also prevent too much snow and ice accumulating. “Harbin is very cold for the most of the year,” comments Ma Yansong, principal architect and founder of MAD Architects, who previously worked for Hadid in London and for Eisenman in New York. “So I envisioned a building that would blend into the winter landscape as a white snow dune arising from the wetlands.” The building is, he suggests, above all a response to the “untamed wilderness and frosty climate” in Harbin.

The façade of glass and steel also forms a roof terrace on top of the main building.
The longitudinal elevation shows perfectly how the building also expands under the earth.

With or without snow

Visitors reach the building either by car or by foot, but at any rate via long jetties that the building extends like tentacles into its surroundings. All the auto traffic, deliveries and visitors alike, arrives by tunnel that burrows under the building. Pedestrians thus enjoy an unadulterated park world and the strangely unreal feel of the building remains unobstructed as you approach it.

Alongside the main opera building with its two concert halls and a total of 2,000 seats there is a small office building and, slightly to one side, another structure housing a hotel, restaurant, and a small exhibition space. All three buildings are arranged around an artificial lake, with the architecture and countryside melding. Indeed, where the soft angle of the main building touches the ground a public space arises that in turn culminates in a bridge that leads across the artificial lake. On the shore on the other side the élan of the building seems to give birth to the hotel. With or without snow, it is hard to distinguish the building from the park.

Inside the main foyer: warm colors, soft forms and lots of light.
The soft wooden forms continue inside the main auditorium.

A warm interior

In the interiors, warm lights and the mild brown tones of wood paneling prevails, albeit shaped as spectacularly and fluidly as the hard shell house. You access both concert halls from the large foyer with its vast glass front that opens it out so strongly. Built to the latest standards, a small, rectangular hall for chamber music was designed as well as a large hall seating 1,600. The seats are spread across the floor and the gallery as well as a few boxes that sit like tree cavities in the wood paneling. The large hall is the piece de resistance, acoustically very much state of the art and destined to do justice to all kinds of musical theater, from Western opera to traditional Chinese theater. It can swiftly be adapted to the relevant event and a small window at the back even brings daylight streaming in if so desired.   

A key element of the design is the public spaces in the building. MAD has consciously designed the entire building as the highlight of the public park. Thus, not only is the large central plaza that is embraced by two of the buildings a public space, but a public promenade accessible free of charge meanders along the façade, reaching almost up to the tip of the roof. From a height of 35 meters, visitors are afforded a view out over the river: Harbin in the distance. Weather permitting, of course.